Gospel & Culture blog
By Kenneth Nehrbass
Some popular authors (Dawkins, Hitchens) have argued that religious fervor is responsible for intolerance and fighting: if people would stop being so religious, societies would be more tolerant and peaceful. These advocates believe that the key to getting along is for religion to just go away. They imagine that highly religious societies cannot have religious freedom; freedom of thought must be correlated with the absence of religion.
But is there really a correlation between religious enthusiasm and religious pluralism? True, some countries like Indonesia notoriously have very high religious fervor (99% of adults in Indonesia- the world's largest Islamic country- said religion was extremely important) and Indonesia has very little religious freedom - Pew rated the government involvement in religion (GRI) index for Indonesia at 8.4 out of 10. On the other hand, Estonia is one of the world's most secular nations: only 17% said religion was important; yet the country rates only 1.2 out of 10 on governmental involvement in religion. Cases like these suggest that the more religious a country is, the less religious freedom there will be; the key to religious freedom must be to be secular like Estonia.
The problem with this thinking is that there are many counter-examples. Russia is fairly secular (35% said religion was important) but the government squelches religious freedom (7.4 out of 10); and this is about the same with Israel. And on the other end of the spectrum, Brazil and Malawi are some of the most highly religious nations, yet enjoy some the highest rates of religious freedom.
I correlated the GRI with levels of religious enthusiasm for 101 countries to test the null hypothesis that "there is no relationship between religious interest and religious freedom." The correlation coefficient r=0.10, which is a very weak correlation: There is only a very weak correlation between religious enthusiasm and degree of religious pluralism. The chart below shows the results:
It seems plenty of countries can be highly religious yet enjoy a high degree of religious freedom- like those in the lower right quadrant of the figure above, including the USA. It is possible for a country to be highly religious and yet highly tolerant.
Of course, the TYPE of religion significantly affects the openness. Are Christian countries much more likely to enjoy religious freedom, whereas highly Islamic countries do not? If that's the case, then the pathway to religious pluralism isn't for religion to take the back burner, but for us to take a serious look at which religions are good for society. I compared religious freedom in ten nations where the Christianity is the majority religion (Italy, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Portugal, Ireland, Kenya, Philippines, Argentina, Zimbabwe) against the religious freedom of ten of the world's most populous Islamic nations (Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Afghanistan): The average religious freedom in Christian countries is 2.49 (SD=.97) and in Islamic countries is 6.55 (SD=1.44). The t-value is -7.74. The p-value is < .00001, which is considered highly significant. That means that the chances are one in a million that the higher levels of religious freedom enjoyed by Christians, compared to Muslims, are purely coincidental. It's not a coincidence: Christianity seems to encourage religious freedom, whereas Islam doesn't.
What about secular nations? Are they more likely to encourage religious freedom than Christian ones? I compared the same 10 Christian nations above against the ten countries that self-reported as least religious (Estonia, Sweden, Hong Kong, Japan, UK, France, Viet Nam, Belarus, Russia and Albania). Remember the average religious freedom in the Christian nations is 2.49. in secular nations it is 3.69 on the scale of 1 to 10 (SD=2.25). The t-value is 1.62. The p-value is .06. Secular nations do have slightly higher rates of intolerance than majority Christian nations, but at .06 (a one in 20 likelihood that the differences between governmental influence in these countries were left up to chance), this is considered insignificant: there is no reason to think that secular societies are more likely to promote religious freedom than Christian ones.
If you needed to know how I calculated the t-value in the above stats.
T-value Calculation for Christian and Islamic nations
s2p = ((df1/(df1 + df2)) * s21) + ((df2/(df2 + df2)) * s22) = ((10/20) * 0.94) + ((10/20) * 2.08) = 1.51
s2M1 = s2p/N1 = 1.51/11 = 0.14
s2M2 = s2p/N2 = 1.51/11 = 0.14
t = (M1 - M2)/√(s2M1 + s2M2) = -4.06/√0.28 = -7.74
T-value Calculation for Christian and Secular nations
s2p = ((df1/(df1 + df2)) * s21) + ((df2/(df2 + df2)) * s22) = ((10/19) * 0.94) + ((9/19) * 5.05) = 2.89
s2M1 = s2p/N1 = 2.89/11 = 0.26
s2M2 = s2p/N2 = 2.89/10 = 0.29
t = (M1 - M2)/√(s2M1 + s2M2) = -1.2/√0.55 = -1.62
with guest contributor Denis LaClare
The new GodTools app from CRU was designed to help people share the gospel in any setting from a phone or tablet. In addition to the iconic “Four Spiritual Laws”, there are 2 versions of “Knowing God Personally” and “Satisfied”, which explore the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
And the newest tool is called “Honor Restored" which is aimed at sharing the gospel among the more than one million international students who are in the USA. Many of these students come from honor/shame cultures. In simplistic terms, the first of three primary worldviews can be summarized as “Western”, which emphasizes an interpretation of the world through the lenses of guilt and innocence.
A second worldview element for many international students is based on fear and power. Any culture with indigenous peoples (Africans, Native Americans, etc.) or cultures that try to appease the spiritual world out of fear, fall into this category. A third worldview encapsulates almost all of the Asian, Arab and Persian world and is motivated by honor and shame. The avoidance of shame and the acquisition of honor for themselves and their families are their highest virtues. The Honor Restored digital tool gives them an opportunity to understand the good news in terms that make sense to them. Released in January, 2018, the tool has 2400 “hits” and at least one international student has given their life to Jesus after walking through Honor Restored with a fellow student. Cru hopes to see thousands of students understand and embrace Jesus as a result of this tool.
“Probably the most controversial idea of the Church Growth Movement was the elaboration of the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP)” (Pickett, 2015, p. 178). The HUP states “People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers” therefore “conversion should occur with the minimum of social dislocation” (McGavran, 1990, p. x). That is, church planting efforts should focus on “homogenous units” which McGavran defines as “simply a section of society in which all the members have some characteristic in common” (1990, p. 85). McGavran avers “the great obstacles to conversion are social, not theological” (p. 156). People will not give a church a fair hearing if they stick out in the congregation like a sore thumb. Birds of a feather flock together.
The HUP is a product of the discourse of contextualization and the notion of people groups: The gospel must be presented to people in ways that are culturally familiar to them, including indigenous language, worship style, architecture, and so on. The HUP suggests that church growth efforts will be most effective if they are directed at homogenous units (which can be taken to mean ethnolinguistic people groups).
It is significant that the HUP was conceived by missiologists who worked in India, since India is one of the most socially stratified nations. Caste identity can significantly limit South Asian’s interactions with others who are of higher or lower standing. Therefore, it would seem, church ministry would be easiest among people of the same caste. The HUP suggests that church planting efforts should focus on these homogenous units, like the Dalits or the Brahmins.
The HUP is so controversial because it seems to subvert the value of diversity, the cross-pollination of theological thought, and the unity of the body of Christ. This emphasis on distinct worshipping communities may seem to contrast Galatians 2:28, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (NIV). Yet, Wagner (1978) argued, “Gentiles do not have to become Jews, females do not have to become males… in order to enter into and share the blessings of God's Kingdom” (p. 18). The HUP was meant to reify cultural difference, not to cause cultural divisions. As Steffen (2011) mentioned, “McGavran believed the homogeneous unit was a necessary starting point. He also believed it was not the end point. Homogenous churches could and should eventually become more heterogeneous” (p. 28).
Once people groups are identified, strategists begin to catalog these groups in terms of evangelistic response and need, for the purposes prayer (Johnstone, 2001). And mission organizations begin to direct mission resources to the fields (i.e., people groups) 1) that were seen as “ripe” (receptive); or 2) to those where no work has been done. If it were not for the concept of people groups, mission mobilizers would not have come to emphasize unreached people groups in the 1990s. Beginning with the world’s 7000 distinct languages (P. Lewis, Simons, & Fennig, 2013), the Joshua project took into account features such as religion, and ethnicity, (“Global Statistics,” n.d.) to arrive at a list of over 16,000 people groups.
Missiologists (Bush, 2013) have, understandably, connected the concept of ethnolinguistic people groups to the use of ethne in the New Testament. For example, they contend that Matthew 28:19 means “Make disciples of all people groups.” This argument is fraught with difficulties:
Think of the difficulties in interpreting ethne as ethnic groups: Is the child of an African-American father and Korean mother a member of a distinct ethne—yet another ethne that must be evangelized and will be included in the “all cultures in heaven” list? Would reaching a Korean-African American be considered as one new ethne or two or three ethne? What about people like Tiger Woods—“Cabalasians” who have numerous ethnicities in their background (as in fact, we all do)? Are they included as a distinct ethne? Are Caucasian Americans in the twenty-first century—with the innumerable combinations of Scandinavian, Mediterranean, Eastern European ancestry—to be understood as a single ethne? If we extend ethne to mean “however people identify themselves ethnically” or “all possible ethnic permutations” then we are left with so many possibilities that we may as well just say “all people.” In fact, that is exactly what many theologians conclude: We must interpret “every tribe and nation” as a metaphor for many people from all over the world. (Nehrbass, 2016, p. 71)
The model of people groups has now been amended to include seventeen major “affinity blocs”, including the Arab world, East Asians, Eurasians, Jews, Malay, North Americans, Pacific Islanders, etc. As affinity blocs are highly reductive and do not take into account these major differences in ethnicity, language or religion, the concept may appear to be a regression from “people groups.” However, affinity blocs are also a missiological application of the homogenous unit principle: Mission strategies within the Arab world will be tailored differently than they will among North Americans or East Asians.
The concept of people groups, combined with the 20th century push for “evangelization in this generation” led to the discourse of unreached people groups. Once these unreached people groups could be identified, mission mobilizers suggested adopting people groups, especially in a geographic region missiologists called the 10/40 window.
If William Carey translated 6 Bibles and portions into 29 other languages, how good could those translations have been?
Across the USA on the fourth Thursday of November, grandparents, in-laws and families will be gathering to eat foods they don't usually eat: Turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, yams and cranberry sauce (below, you can post your favorites that I may have left of the list). Some will remember to thank God, the giver of all good gifts (James 1:17). But what about US Americans who are overseas? How will they celebrate? I asked some Biola students who are scattered around the world what they do for Thanksgiving. One in Thailand said her expatriate (US) community usually goes out to a steakhouse or buffet together. Others, including one student in Mongolia and one who split time between Indonesia and South Korea, attempt to mimic the full Thanksgiving meal, but sometimes have to substitute the turkey with chickens. A student in Hong Kong said:
We do it up in a major way. We pull our kids out of school and gather American friends (and others who are interested) and try and pull out all the stops. Used to be finding the biggest chickens available to roast but turkey is more common than it used to be. It’s a chance to show hospitality, connect children to American tradition and spend a day together.
Dr Tom Sappington, associate professor of theology and missions at Biola University said when his family was in Indonesia they invited many Indonesian friends to experience an American Thanksgiving with all the trimmings. "Our Indonesian guests loved it, but one felt like he still needed to get rice on the way back to his home, since you haven't eaten, unless you've had rice."
On the other hand, some US Americans abroad deliberately skip Thanksgiving, if their host culture doesn't celebrate it. A missionary to the south Pacific said, "What do we do when we're abroad for Thanksgiving? Pretend we're not Americans." Another missionary said, "I try not to think about Thanksgiving when we're overseas...too sad to be away from home at that time."
A borrowed holiday?
Of course, US Americans don't have a monopoly on Thanksgiving- especially in this global age of culture-sharing. Canadians celebrate a Thanksgiving feast much like US Americans do, on the Second Monday of October. But most people may be unaware that Canadian Thanksgiving is actually older than the version in the USA, having been brought over in the 16th century by missionaries from Europe. "And we don't have the connection to shopping, like Black Friday in the States," explained Dr Michael Lessard-Clouston, a Canadian who is professor of Applied Linguistics at Biola University. Since moving to the USA, his family has celebrated two Thanksgivings in the fall - on both the Canadian and US dates.
Yes, Thanksgiving, as many Americans know it, is actually a European holiday, especially German and Dutch. Thanksgiving has been celebrated since 1574 in Leiden, Netherlands, after the city survived a period of famine. Erntedankfest (giving-thanks festival) is the harvest celebration in Western Germany, and includes parades and fireworks on the first Sunday in October. A less religious version, the beer-festival known as Oktoberfest, is more widely celebrated at the same time. In fact, many countries with German diaspora celebrate Oktoberfest.
Thanksgiving has also been re-imagined by communities that were marginalized during the early colonial era Emancipated slaves brought American Thanksgiving to Liberia when they began re-settling Western Africa. The official date of Thanksgiving in Liberia is the first Thursday of November.
Pagan harvest ritual?
Thanksgiving, even the Christian-European version, is actually a version of a nearly global phenomenon known as harvest rituals. Throughout tribal communities, the Southern Hemisphere, the annual harvest is celebrated in March and April (their spring). In Vanuatu, clans celebrate the yam harvest by offering first fruits to the magician who is responsible for a good crop yield. Christians in Vanuatu offer their first fruits in church. rather than to the tribal magicians. In fact, the redemption of a pagan harvest ritual is a global phenomenon. For example ChinaSource reported on Lahu Christians in Yunnan province who offered their first fruits in church at the fall harvest.
There are several versions of harvest rituals in Asia (and by Asian communities in diaspora around the globe): At the full moon in mid-autumn, many Han Chinese swap moon cakes during the Moon Festival. Starbucks has capitalized on the event, selling espresso, caramel and hazelnut mooncakes. "Because it's a holiday, people have time to go visit their relatives. In fact, Chinese refer to a full moon as a 'round' moon; and the word round, in Chinese, is relate to the word for 'reunify,' so we reunite at that time," explained Dr John Liang, professor of Applied Linguistics at Biola University. However, Liang told me, his family has not celebrated the moon festival since moving to the USA. "My kids don't even like the taste of the moon cakes- they're too sweet, or have eggs in them." "Sometimes Chinese people say these moon cakes are like American fruit Cakes" Dr. Jamie Sanchez, assistant professor of Intercultural Studies at Biola University, commented.
Sanchez also explained that it can be too reductive to simply refer to the mid-autumn festival as "Chinese Thanksgiving", since there are substantial differences. Besides, "who is to say that the Moon festival is like our Thanksgiving. Maybe our Thanksgiving is like their Moon festival, which is, after all 2000 years older."
South Koreans eat small rice cakes called Songpyeon (송편) on Chuseok Day, an Autumn harvest holiday. Dr. Eunice Hong, adjunct professor at Biola's Cook School of Intercultural Studies, said many Koreans return to their hometowns for the three day holiday to enjoy cooking, eating, and bowing to their deceased ancestors. "Because I grew up here in the United States (and because we are Christians), we do not observe it quite like those in Korea. Ancestors worship is very important to Koreans (traditionally), but because we follow Christ, we do not bow down to the ancestors. So here in the States, we go visit our relatives, the women cook in the kitchen all day and in the evening we eat tons of tradition Korean food, but that's about it!"
Vietnamese celebrate a fall harvest Têt-Trung-Thu similar to China's moon festival. Michael Souter explains it is "the Children’s Festival, is held as a way for parents, once busy with the harvest, to make amends with their children who may have felt neglected." One Vietnamese-American blogged about how his family hybridized their own culinary preferences with American Thanksgiving.
So here's one more thing to be thankful for this year: The many ways people around the globe have celebrated bounty, and have celebrated each other. What's on the menu, and the date of the celebration, isn't the important thing. Above all, God delights when we praise Him for his goodness to us all year round (Psalm 147:11).
My work as a translation consultant brought me to a rural village in Vanuatu. The Anglican congregation meets under a structure of bamboo and thatch, with barbed wire strung along the posts to keep pigs and cows out. The priest wears a robe, stole and cross necklace. It is evident that his faith is sincere and that he’s connecting with God. As he lifts up the silver chalice and recites the liturgy, it occurs to me: This pacific island congregation is symbolically linked with Anglican congregations around the world by observing the mass the same way it is done all over the world; but are the people in this simple village church aware of the centuries of debate about the nature of the elements in the Eucharist? They identify with the name ‘Anglican’ but are they partakers of the long-standing tension between Roman Catholicism and the Protestantism? When they sing ‘And Can it Be’ in pidgin English, are they nostalgic about with massive pipe organs in places like Westminster Abbey; and what else do they know of Charles Wesley’s legacy? Is Christianity, for them, a legacy of two thousand years’ of pondering paradoxes like predestination and freewill, or salvation by works or faith? What is the value, for them, of Luther’s 95 theses? Of five point Calvinism? Or of the Wesleyan quadrilateral?
The village catechist, Norm, had spent the last four years walking twenty miles, (and crossing four language boundaries along the way) to receive training at a biblically-grounded theological institute. After ordination, he returned to reach his village for Christ. When Norm puts on the stole, he is mindful of apostolic succession down through the centuries. When he holds up the silver chalice, he thinks of the church of God universal. As he labors at producing a vernacular Bible translation, he identifies himself with Wycliffe, Tyndale and Luther. However, his new congregation is largely unfamiliar with this legacy. Their experience of Christianity is their cousin or uncle Norman, holding a clear plastic cup of wine, and reciting portions of “God’s Talk” in their own language. To them, and many in remote village churches, Christianity is about the here and now, not a world religion with a two-thousand-year legacy.
Has the Christian identity of such villagers been short-changed or watered down because of this? Should missionaries endeavor to transmit some of the rich legacy of Christendom along with the gospel, if that is even possible? Many missiologists would argue that we’re called to make disciples, not to transmit a cultural legacy, no matter how rich it may be. In fact, it is precisely because of their isolation that these rural villages and islands have a unique opportunity for contextual theology. True, they are not inheriting the rich past of Christendom, but neither are they inheriting the schismatic or more sordid parts of Christian history. Their corporate memory of the church has neither cathedrals nor crusades; neither Cartesian philosophy nor colonial domination; neither creeds nor Christological controversies. Their church is not set in the context of 1300 years of tensions between Islam and Christianity nor in the more recent debate over church and state. Instead, the church is embodied by people like Norm, by the book he’s translating, by the songs he has taught them, and by the God to whom he is trying to win their allegiance.
Despite (justified) criticisms that nineteenth and early twentieth century missionaries were not contextual enough in their missiology, many communities took this gospel, as foreign as it was, and interpreted it as uniquely their own. They went around naming their rivers the Jordan and their lakes Galilee; villages were called Nazareth and Samaria; high points must have been where the ark landed; certain stone formations were identified with the stone Moses struck in the desert, or where David fought Goliath. This makes evangelicals leery because of historical inaccuracy; but it’s also a sign that the villagers see the Bible as God’s message for their own time and place- not something from 10,000 miles and two millennia away.
There may be something lost, if members of the small Anglican congregation see Norm more as “cousin” or “brother” than as “apostolic successor” or “ordained priest.” Are they missing out on something because they have not worked out a theology of the Eucharist? I think they’ll work out these things in their own time. For now, their “clean slate” acceptance of Norm’s church plant is evident of the miracle of indigenous church growth. In Norm and his bamboo-and-thatch church we see a picture of a self-multiplying, self-funding, and self-governing church.
But what most concerns me about indigenous churches that have not had their own Reformation is that they may lack the mind-boggling paradigm shift that salvation is a free gift. It seems that the notion that you must earn salvation is "common sense" all over the world, and it takes churches centuries sometimes (in the West, it took 1500 years) to learn the lesson that it is impossible to please God with good works. Salvation is free. That's why we all need a Reformation.
Norman’s village has a way to go before it’s a strong church community. There were only four men and two women in the service the day I visited. There is only one elder in the church. They are only beginning to understand what it means to be a disciple. And they have their own controversies to solve and theological problems to sort out. Their church may not have inherited America’s bitter disagreements about traditional or contemporary music; but they are trying to decide on such issues as whether elders can drink kava, or whether Christians can use the services of a clairvoyant.
We can be sure that the solutions they come up with will be a relevant Christianity for them. As they join in globalization, they may not share the past two millennia of Christendom with us, but their future will involve going beyond their islands, joining in complicated global debates, and benefiting from the worldwide Church of Christ.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor