Further inconvenient truth

The missionary roots of liberal democracy

Panomara of Central Accra
Accra, Ghana

The most important ingredient in a successful 21st century democracy? Nineteenth century Protestant missionaries.

Sociology scholar Robert Woodberry wrote this:

​’Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.’

This remains true (on Woodberry’s analysis) after correcting for every other explanation you can think of, and he’s done work too to look at whether causation is involved (the one caused the other) or merely correlation.

Robert Woodberry is one of the depressingly-increasing numbers of people of whom I can say, ‘I knew his father’. (Prof Dudley Woodberry at Fuller Seminary taught me Islamics).

Woodberry fils has devoted years to careful data-gathering and analysis and has established a strong correlation between ‘conversionary’ Protestant missionaries and nations’ subsequent trajectories in literacy, poverty, women’s rights, and social capital.

Woodberry’s landmark paper, ‘The missionary roots of liberal democracy’ has won awards and intrigued sceptics:

“[Woodberry] presents a grand and quite ambitious theory of how conversionary Protestants’ contributed to building democratic societies,” says Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history at Baylor University. “Try as I might to pick holes in it, the theory holds up. [It has] major implications for the global study of Christianity.”

It’s fascinating. Compare Ghana with next-door Togo; Canada with Argentina; and Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary with Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia. You have to read the paper for all the nuances. But still.

  • These quotes are all taken from Andrea Palpant Dilley’s cover story in Christianity Today, January 8 2014. Robert Woodberry has recently made the paper free as a pdf download and you find it here. For a less-gushy perspective on Woodberry see this thoughtful piece.

How the Bible works – Tom Wright

How to get the Bible to work

Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today

Evangelicals believe the Bible’s a kind of tool for day-to-day life and eternal life. But how exactly? At one point Moses asks God about what to with someone gathering sticks on the Sabbath. ‘Stone him to death’ comes the answer. Okay…

Tom Wright’s book Scripture and the Authority of God is the fun-size version of his much larger The New Testament and the People of God. But most of us won’t eat that rich meal, and provided you can put up with its cut-down, written on a Saturday afternoon, would-love-to-linger-but-must-dash breathlessness, there’s a fully working framework for thinking about the Bible in these sparse pages.

Wright points out, first, that Scripture is a story.  If you don’t think ‘authority’ can be located within ‘story,’ look at the parable of the Good Samaritan. It teaches ‘Love your neighbour’ better than any number of laws, bye-laws, special exceptions and precedents. So scripture exercises its authority largely by setting out a grand narrative and getting us to work out how we fit in it.

Second, it’s a story in several phases. Wright suggest five. His five stages are:

  1. Creation (Genesis 1-2);
  2. Fall (Genesis 3-11)
  3. Preparation for Christ (all the Old Testament from Genesis 12 onwards);
  4. Jesus’ incarnation and what he did next (the gospels)
  5. The working out of New Creation through the life of the Church (Acts onward.)

It assumes a sixth act, the end/beginning of all things, of which Act 5 is just a foreshadowing and catalyst.

Third, it’s a story we are in. And we work out our part of the story by engaging with the earlier chapters.

So, roughly Wright’s framework for understanding and being shaped by the authority of God through scripture is:

  1. Read earlier phases in the light of the final phase
  2. Draw on the whole story as we play our part in progressing the story.

This framework explains a lot: the unity of scripture; and the reason for discarding lots of its commands and emphases, such as the ones about stoning sabbath breakers.

We discard them because we understand them to have had, and have now finished having, their role in their story. Once you’ve dug the foundations, you can stop digging foundations and do the next things. You stop digging not because foundations were a bad idea, but because they have done their proper job of providing the necessary base for the next layer. In that specific example, the total-war mindset to preserve tribal identity in the late bronze age is different from the mindset of living out the good of Christ’s kingdom today, and you can’t simply cut-and-paste from one era to another.

So it isn’t that the Old Testament is ‘somehow about legal stuff’ and the New is ‘somehow about mercy stuff’, but we read and consider different parts depending on where they fit in the overall story.

As Wright puts it himself at one point: one cannot see the Bible ‘in the flat,’ with something being validated or somehow even ennobled just because it is in the Bible …

… But when we approach the question of scripture’s authority … in the light of the whole story and intention of the creator God, dealing with his world step-by-step and eventually dealing decisively with it in and through Jesus Christ, then we discover that the authority of God, as mediated through and in the whole scripture, points to the renewal of creation through Jesus Christ as the key theme of the whole story. (p 194)

and

our task is to discover, through the Spirit and prayer, the appropriate ways of improvising the script between the foundation events and charter [the first phases] … and the complete coming of the Kingdom [the final future phase] …once we grasp this framework, other things begin to fall into place. (p127)

I bought my copy of this book from CLC Cambridge. It’s also available online:

Futility is so last season

Jean-Paul Satre or Radiohead might not have the last word

To the Pond!‘Jesus lived as someone who knew something we don’t – that something of dramatic importance was about to happen, and he was bringing it about. And then he rose from the dead, kickstarted the new creation, and told his followers there was a job to do, a planet to heal, a Gospel to share, a world to save. Look what happened. Deadbeat fishermen became apostles. Tax collectors wrote books that are still bestsellers today. Broken, demonised women became the first witnesses of the new creation. Arrogant thugs turned into church planters. Jesus had taken on futility and won, so you don’t have to listen to Marcel Duchamp, or Jean-Paul Sartre, or Radiohead, or whoever is depressing you at the moment. Because of Jesus and resurrection, futility is very, very last season. Meaning is back.’

 

Andrew Wilson, quoted in Matthew Hosier’s Thinktheology blog Meaning Radiohead. Worryingly, I knew Matthew’s dad.

‘For I’m building a people of power’. Fail.

We may not be cut out for it

Look left, look rightFor I’m building a people of power, I”m making a people of praise, who will move through this land by my Spirit.

Now is the time for us to march across the land.

What were we thinking of in the 1980s? When did the church ‘marching across the land’ end well? What would it even look like, the clatter of zimmer frames, the trundle of wheelchairs, the clergy in nice jumpers, overweight people looking hot and wanting to sit down, the toddlers needing the toilet?

Surely ‘marching across the land’ is not how the Kingdom of God spreads. Here’s how the experts do it:

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.1

 

Church for those with learning disabilities

Our church hosts a congregation for people with learning disabilities. The leader of this ministry, Chrissie Cole, wrote recently for our church bulletin. I thought it was a great story and worth reproducing.

“You mean, I can pray in the garden?” This remark was made by a young man with autism and a learning disability the first time he came to the Causeway group.

We were looking at the story of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. This young man has gone on to be a valued member of our group, who prays the most wonderful prayers which show a degree of compassion for others which is quite surprising given his autism. I hope he has also begun to pray in his garden!

But I am always being surprised by the people who come to the Causeway group; by their faith which takes Jesus at his word, and by their love and support for each other. The Causeway group, which is supported by the Christian charity Prospects, aims to provide accessible worship and teaching for people with learning disabilities such as the young man above. We have been running for 24 years and at the moment have 21 members.

Over the years I think I have had more encouragement and blessing from them than I have given back. Some people might question whether those who do not have the understanding to grasp the theological truths of Christianity are really able to be Christians. To which I would reply that Christianity at its heart is not about theological truths, but is about a relationship with a living God.

Anyone who can respond to another person, on whatever level, is capable of responding to Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and I have seen this happen in wonderful ways over the years. It has also become clear to me that God has equipped them with gifts, as he has everyone in his church, such as being able to lead us in prayer, lead worship on the piano, or notice when someone else is feeling down and needs prayer. I believe it is important that, as with all of us, they are encouraged to use their gifts to build God’s church, both in the Causeway group, and in the wider church.

Inconvenient truth (again)

Uncool but changing things: Evangelicals in Catholic countries

UntitledFew things on earth are as deeply uncool, as heroically off-trend, as sending Evangelical Christian missionaries to Catholic Europe.

If your son or daughter has taken up this career, you probably do not boast about it at the golf club.

So what. For one thing, if a Catholic nation like Spain can embrace gays and scientologists and people with blue hair, a dash of evangelical missionaries surely only adds to the joyous mix. As soon as we evangelicals stop trying to be respectable, we can take our natural place.

For another thing, whatever the spiritual vitality or otherwise of the Catholic church, masses of people in Catholic countries are finding spiritual renewal through movements started by evangelicals and Pentecostals. They are more than 10% of the population in Argentina, for example, more than 20% in the Philippines.

And for a third, Christ’s evident habit of championing the outcast, the laughed-at and the dispossessed has turned builders’ rubble into cornerstone and capstone.

The people who listened

The mission I work for, WEC International, was sending missionaries to Spain from the 1960s onward. They had a difficult time of it. When they did presentations of the gospel in the public parks, hardly anyone listened except the drug addicts.

After much soul-searching, and probably trying every other alternative,  in 1985 one or two single male WEC missionaries starting opening their apartments to these same addicts.

Somehow all the ducks lined up and something wonderful happened. This small start evolved, through God’s blessing, into a movement called Betel that now runs 60 homes for recovering heroinistas in 23 Spanish provinces and has spread to 25 other countries.

More than 200,000 of the neediest and most despised people of the earth have passed through Betel’s doors in the past 30 years and of those who stayed, many have turned their lives around. Awards and accolades have followed.

I’ve met graduates of these schools. When I stand praying next to these big, beautiful, scarred, tattooed people my watery Anglican spirituality feels like some distant relative of authentic Christianity — genetically a bit similar but lacking in sap or blood.

Betel, this child of evangelical mission to Spain, has rediscovered the gospel. From the most obscure of beginnings, the authenticity and power of what they have achieved has altered the landscape. Wonderful.

The Kingdom of God as the ‘sphere of God’s goodness’

I enjoyed this quote from Ken Costa

God at Work: Live Each Day with Purpose
When Jesus came to earth, he proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand. The language of kingdoms can sound strange to us, in that it seems to signify territoriality. In the context of work, it may therefore be helpful to see the kingdom of God as “the sphere of God’s goodness” in the world. We are called to advance God’s kingdom, sharing the “sphere of goodness” and extending it as we operate with God’s values. Our actions at work have the potential to advance the kingdom of God and his “sphere of goodness,” or to hinder it–on both a macro and a micro level. Each time we tell the truth, make decisions fairly and with respect for others, or act with integrity, we are advancing this sphere, albeit in small ways.

Ken Costa, God at Work, p 16.

The real problem with praying to God for healing: he has an agenda

We might not like the medicine

You probably know the old joke about a person who fell off a cliff but managed to grab hold of a branch halfway down. As he swung, he called into the mists below him, ‘Is there anybody there? Can you help me?’

A voice came from the mist. ‘Trust me, and let go the branch.’

The person thought about it and then said, ‘Noted. Is there anybody else down there?’

Involving God in our healing exposes us to the risk that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways.

We may come to him with the hope of a quick fix to a medical problem. But in coming, we open ourselves to the fact that God may have a view on what is really wrong with us and what needs to be put right.  

We may point out the mote in God’s eye (he let me suffer toothache!), he points out the plank in ours. We bring our agenda to him; he brings his agenda to us. It is like when you have to speak to your wife about something.  It’s unpredictable. You don’t know what avalanche will be unleashed as you remove the first boulder. 

Unfortunately I know of no way round this. Once we bring our problems to God we are in the same position as the king with an army of 10,000 discovering that the opposing king has an army of 20,000.  By the end of the day there will only be one king left standing. One agenda will survive the meetup. And it won’t be ours.

Our options at this point are limited. We could take the ‘Henry V’ option (‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…’) Or, since it is God we are now facing, God and his agenda for us, we could take our army to one side and say, ‘Lads, it’s like this. We either face certain death in battle or we surrender and hope for the best.’ We come to him: we submit to him. We want his touch; the only thing offered is his outstretched arms, his deep embrace. It’s all or nothing, all of him or nothing.

Our only way out of this dilemma is to take our medicine as soon as possible. We want healing if possible please; if so, we first need to surrender ourselves, body, mind and schedule, heart and soul and hopes, to the Healer.

 

Is evangelism biblical?

Only evangelicals believe this.

Breaking bread, juice, dinner party, Broadview townhouse, Seattle, Washington, USAHere’s a question.

Is evangelism something you should ‘do’? Is this how we should think?

  1. I am a Christian
  2. The world needs to know the gospel
  3. Led by God, I must go and tell it/them.

I’ve believed this is the right thing to do for decades but never much liked the idea, and not been too good at it either.

There’s an alternative:

  1. The Kingdom is coming
  2. Turn to the King and follow him

I like this much better. Why are these two ideas different?

The first seems to be fatally flawed in that it casts me as the good guy and the expert and the world as the needy thing to which I am sent like a spiritual paramedic. I am broken, as truly broken as the world is, we all know this, I want to communicate this. We evangelicals like to talk about ‘one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread’: good so far. But having the wrong starting point really doesn’t help this communication effort. When I climb into the spiritual ambulance, put the blue lights on, and race helpfully towards you I am obscuring the message of our mutual need.

The second approach starts with broken me and sets as my duty ‘following Jesus’ rather than ‘evangelizing’. Go where he leads; do what he wants me to do; become what he wants me to become; and strive to form disciples en route.

The first feels like a marketing campaign, the second feels more like a pilgrimage – and also more natural, normal and slow.

There’s some Biblical heft behind the second idea (as well as personal preference). It’s what Jesus himself said and did, right from the start on the Galilee lakeside: the Kingdom is coming: embrace it.

It’s what he sent out his apostles to preach and demonstrate.

Even the Great Commission in Matthew, the final peak of Christ’s teaching, is not (as is often taught and I myself have taught) ‘go and make disciples’. It is best translated, ‘in your going’; ‘as you go’; or (I paraphrase) ‘on your way through life’, ‘make disciples of all the nations.’

I don’t think all the evidence is in my favour and I am deliberately overstating things. Just a few days ago I heard of more than 50 students making a profession of faith after what looked a lot like an evangelistic campaign in their university. Paul and other apostles clearly strategized, preached, believed they had the answers and set out to teach the world. They behaved like good evangelicals. But they were gifted evangelists. And they were only a part of the Church’s response to Christ; they had their limitations too. And perhaps campus evangelistic missions are more like the exception in church growth, not the rule.

We are not all evangelists. Teaching us all to behave like evangelists is an evangelical weakness, a weakness that’s obvious to everyone (except ourselves). We thereby seem to love to instruct people in the right way to live–not an attractive quality–rather than admitting the truth, which is that we are all hippos together in the glorious mud–but Christ has come among us.

Inconvenient data

It just really gets in the way of sloppy thinking.

Fulbe herders, W Africa, 1984, taken from just outside my front door — a missionary memory of my own.

Our new vicar showed us a film of his early life as a child of missionaries in West Papua (the other half of Papua New Guinea).

A compilation of home movies, and from the 1970s, it was almost a splicing together of Victorian missionary cliches: small dark-skinned people carry suitcases on their heads through the jungle. White missionary in shorts and pith helmet preaches to seated crowds who are clad in shells and penis-gourds. Female white missionary gives injections while dark-skinned people wait patiently for their turn; local children run to greet the aeroplane.

I’ve spent a lot of my career writing positively about missions in a world where ‘everybody knows’ the whole endeavour is an exercise in cultural imperialism and thinly-veiled racism. These images confirm everything ‘everyone knows’ and they don’t help.

Except they did help. As the film unfolded, we saw the happiness on the people’s faces when they destroyed their weapons in a fire. We saw the road that two villages built to connect them because they wanted to give up war forever.  Primitive peoples? They were advanced enough to disarm and to build bridges with their neighbours and rivals. Conspicuously more advanced, then, than my country; and the gospel did that. The gospel the pith-helmeted missionaries in their t00-short 1970s shorts brought.

How often is the truth more complicated, and more unfashionable, than the lazy assumption? I think probably always.