Gospel & Culture blog
By Ken Nehrbass
Author and missionary to Indonesia (then, Irian Jaya) has passed away this Dec. 23.
Richardson received his education from the Prairie Bible Institute and the Summer Institute of Linguistics. He never taught full time at a university, and his publications would be considered popular rather than academic. Yet his theories of redemptive analogies, the Melchizedek factor, and original monotheism captured the imagination of missionaries and mobilizers of missionaries. He also had a tremendous impact on my own life: I was planning on being a pastor in the USA until a friend at church gave me a copy of Richardson's Peace Child. After I read it, I knew I was called to Bible translation.
Richardson provided data from around the world that suggested that God has planted the notion of a Supreme Being deep within the human psyche (Richardson, 1981). This is a simplified version of Wilhelm Schmidt’s (1931) massive “culture-history.” Like other “diffusionary anthropologists,” Schmidt believed that cultural elements (bows and arrows, ideas about exogamy or endogamy, religion, etc.) must have been diffused from a proto-civilization. For Schmidt and Richardson, this uber civilization was directly inherited from Noah’s descendants, so it must have had a vestige of belief in one high God. The original culture, then, was monotheistic, but subsequent diffusion and cultural innovations led to increased interest in ritual and “middle level” religious activity, to the near extinction of belief in the high God. Yet spanning from the Karen of Burma to the ancient Incas, to Sub Saharan African religions, tribal peoples seem to have a name for the High God who seems to have forgotten them. Perhaps if missionaries would just re-introduce these peoples to their long lost belief in God, they would experience a collective conversion. Richardson’s stories of mass
By Kenneth Nehrbass
American missionary John Allen Chau was killed recently when he traveled alone to Sentinel Island to preach the gospel. India's law makes it illegal for foreigners to land there, partly to protect the islanders from foreign disease, and partly to protect travelers from violence. As a missiologist, people have been asking my thoughts on the killing. Is Chau a hero or not? Other missionaries have been highly praised for taking similar risks: The murder of John Williams and James Harris in Erromango in 1839 sent of a worldwide interest in missions in the South Pacific. The killing of Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming, and Roger Youderian in 1955 sparked similar passion for missions among the unreached. Is Chau's short life a similar example for Christians to take risks for the sake of the gospel?
Chau's tragedy has ramifications for missions in general: Does a sense of divine calling outweigh the risks? Is it okay for a missionary to defy a nation's laws, if his motives are to preach Christ? Should remote places like the Andaman Islands be left alone?
Is his death a tragedy? Yes. The death of anyone is grievous; the murder of anyone is unacceptable and tragic. Many news outlets eulogized Chau well, and I find it natural to empathize with his family and friends who are grieving.
Is risk justified? Yes. Jesus calls us to take great risks for the sake of his name. Peter got out of the boat and walked on water in conditions that could have caused him to drown. Proverbs 3:5 encourages us to "Trust in the Lord, and don't lean on your own understanding." Many of the apostles and church planters in the early centuries were persecuted to the point of death when they preached the gospel across cultures. The scripture clearly places a sense of calling above logic and safety. If God calls you to take a risk, you obey. Josh 1:9 tells us to be strong and courageous. Watch Chau's short challenge to take risks for global missions here.
Is it okay to break the law to do missionary work? Generally, no. Missiologists almost never condone breaking another nation's laws. It's one thing to protest an unjust law in your own country- but as guests in foreign countries, we are not part of the lawmaking process there, and cannot pick and choose which laws to follow. If the Andamans are Indian's territory, missionaries must respect India's laws there. Virtually all missionary organizations work through the official processes and laws of the host countries to gain legal permits to do
What defines anthropology is not a canonical body of knowledge, rather mutually held perspectives about human nature and methods for studying cultures. While anthropologists have recently experienced a turn toward epistemological uncertainty, calling into question seminal theories in their field, many remain committed to these perspectives, such as cultural relativism and a materialistic (rather than spiritual) ontology. Yet some are finding these perspectives to be unsatisfactory or even irrelevant. For instance, those interested in the anthropology of Christianity are beginning to challenge the rationalist view that religion only merits academic study insofar as it provides insight into social organization, politics, gender, material culture and so on.
On Knowing Humanityis a series of conceptual essays that offer Christian responses to these hegemonic perspectives within anthropology. As an interdisciplinary work, the authors move beyond the giants of anthropology to draw from the works of philosophers (Polanyi), theologians (Barth, Buber, Torrance, Volf) and sociologists (Berger), as well as from scripture.
What has theology to do with anthropology? As Eric Flett mentioned in chapter 10, (referencing Karl Barth), if God became man, then theology and anthropology are conversation partners (209). The authors do not argue that secular anthropology is outright wrong, but is incomplete without a foundation in Christian theology because it “lacks the explanatory power needed to elucidate its own subject material” (2). Or in some instances, the materialist ontology is so deeply held it is sacrosanct. “The problem in anthropology is not the lack of an ontology, or even a kind of teleology…[but] that the content of these background beliefs is rarely if ever acknowledged”
Numerous missiological texts have stressed the importance of “local theologies,” or have outlined models for contextualization; but far fewer works have supplied rich data on actual contextual theologies. Living in the family of Jesuscontains a collection of erudite essays on local Christianities, written by Melanesian scholars and Westerners who have lived in Melanesia.
Just as Jesus told the apostles it was their job to give the crowd something to eat (John 9:13), Longgar suggests that the Spirit is asking Melanesian theologians to supply meaty scriptural teaching that addresses the needs of their own people (46), since a borrowed theology dethrones God by making God irrelevant (39). For a theology to be indigenous in Melanesia, it must address issues related to ancestors, the natural environment, land (34), and reciprocity (51); as well as fears of sorcery, barrenness, or failure (52).
Shaw’s and Bustos’ essays both suggest that the loss of contextualized rituals has made God feel distant to Melanesians. Reimagining indigenous funerary and puberty rites can reinforce the sense that God is present in the hours of deepest need. Mombi’s essay makes a comparison of tribal ritual and cleanliness rituals in the Bible; but it is not clear whether he is making the comparison to suggest compatibility between the two ritual systems, or perhaps he envisions a Christian fulfillment or replacement of those rituals. Regardless, Mombi’s thesis is innovative: Melanesians should engage cleanliness rituals not as a means for guaranteeing success (as traditional religion would suggest) but as fundamentally about drawing closer to God (99).
A few of the essays lean heavily on biblical exegesis. Charlesworth’s analysis of the Sermon on the Mount subverts Melanesian ideas of shame and honor: Jesus violated cultural expectations, suggesting that the ultimate goal is not just to show respect and honor, but
By Kenneth Nehrbass
Even though we call the Nov. 11 celebration of our military forces "Veteran's Day," a veteran literally just means "old timer"-- someone who is experienced at something. You can be a veteran farmer or a veteran computer programmer. And while we are continually adding holidays throughout the year to celebrate all sorts of important occupations, many of us hold "Veteran's Day" in higher esteem than the rest. Those who serve in the military sacrifice the opportunity to earn higher salaries elsewhere, their ability to live near family, the comforts of home, many of their freedoms, and sometimes their lives, to protect our nation.
In 2023, my son Private First Class Caleb Nehrbass will finish his first term in the US Army as a Blackhawk helicopter maintainer and will join the distinguished list of "old timer" veterans. This is an honor he will carry the rest of his life, like both of his grandfathers and all four of his great-grandfathers.
One way people describe their appreciation of veterans is by pointing out they "defend our way of life." It's true that many careers MAINTAIN our way of life. Farmers maintain our world class level of abundant food production; the press maintains our unprecedented freedoms of speech; pastors maintain our tremendous freedoms of religious speech; entrepreneurs maintain our nation's reputation of ingenuity and upward mobility. But over the past century, dictators, unjust governments and religious sects have arisen that would like to remove these freedoms from our (and our allies') farmers, press, pastors, and entrepreneurs. The veterans have made sacrifices to make sure that doesn't happen.
A year ago, my wife Mendy and I sat in the stands with the parents of a thousand other soldiers who graduated from boot camp at Fort Jackson, SC. Canons blasted smoke across the airfield, and the soldiers appeared through the thick of the smoke, marching in formation to the Army theme song. The young men and women stood before us and took an oath to "defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." Often, our soldiers are sent to protect not only strangers, but strangers on
By Ken Nehrbass
This year's theme of the Evangelical Missiological Society was "missions and evangelism in a secular age." There were many discouraging trends about the "nones"- millennials who no longer see themselves as religious. Much of the discussion centered on how we can help make the church more palatable to secular folks. A palatable church would be a compassionate one (Eph 4:32), one that creates space for disagreement and questioning of the faith, one that is not judgmental (Matt 7:1). This doesn't mean watering down the message, or selling out to the world, it just means sending a message of love in a way that the world can understand.
Yet the more I thought about my own experience with missions and evangelism in a secular age, I began to think through the men and women I know who have moved from "nones" (non religious) to faith in Christ in the past ten years. As I recalled the faith journeys of these new members of the family of Christ, I realized that each of them converted because 1) they were in a crisis in their lives, and 2) a Christian explained that the Bible is trustworthy, that God demands repentance, and that following Jesus is the only way to peace and purpose.
In other words, it was the testimony of believers, and the power of God's word, that brought these people from secular to saved. Just like in the gospels and the book of Acts-- Jesus and the other preachers told people "repent and believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31). Reaching a "none" is just like reaching people from the first century Palestine, and like reaching people from every other century: the Word of God, the testimony of believers, and the timing of the Holy Spirit in a person's life are the keys to evangelism.
By Kenneth Nehrbass
As a professor of intercultural studies, I read students' reflections about culture throughout each semester. Often, my students from the US describe American culture as "patriotic" and even assume that patriotism is not only strong in the USA, but a distinct characteristic of Americans.
My hunch, from traveling the world, and from teaching international students, is that most- virtually all- national cultures foster a sense of patriotism. I wondered how unique US patriotism is.
Luckily, we don't have to rely on hunches. In 2014, Gallup did a poll of 62,000 people in 64 countries to measure levels of patriotism. They narrowly defined patriotism as "willingness to die for your country" which is, of course, a disputable definition. But it may give a window into other patriotic sentiments.
It turns out that the USA was near the bottom, at only 44% willing to die for their country. Below the USA were "Germany, Netherlands, and Japan at 18%, 15% and 11% respectively". What were the most patriotic countries? Morocco and Fiji were tied in number one, with 94% willing to die for their country. Pakistan, Vietnam and Bangladesh were next.
In preparation for Pope Francis' historic visit to Ireland, one group converted a car wash into a drive- through confessional. While many Irish seem to understand the temporary confessional as a form of pop-up art, drivers have lined up to get a glimpse inside, and maybe even to silently confess their sins while driving through.
On NPR's "The World" the creator of the exhibit said he was just trying to help Irish people be self-critical about their own hypocrisy-- Irish are far less religiously committed than they used to be, but are still enthusiastic about the pope's visit: There is truth in the sarcasm of the "modern day confessional:" Why do we feel like we need to clean ourselves up when a religious leader visits, when it is more important to clean ourselves up for our own sake? We should repent from our sin because it's wrong, and because it breaks our relationship with God (1 John 1:5)-- not just to impress the pope or anyone around us.
The fact that the drive-through confessional is actually a car wash actually contains some unintended metaphors: All that cleansing and washing away of filth, for instance. And consider that our cars are emblematic of our contemporary sinful attitudes, such as
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor