Africa and the re-enchantment of the West

By Douglas Baulch (Douglas Baulch) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Merlin the magician
Vampires, wizards, witches, zombies – enchantment pervades the NetFlix movies we stream, the television programs we watch, and the books that sell by the millions. Science may be taught in our classrooms – the “Star Trek” franchise still has a following, after all – but it’s the paranormal and the supernatural that are all the rage. In North America and Europe at the close of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, we’re seeing what may be termed the re-enchantment of the West.

As a missionary serving in Africa, I find this phenomenon fascinating since Africa arguably has never been de-enchanted, nearly a century of colonial rule and decades of post-colonial Western influence notwithstanding. Teaching a class of pastors in Benin some years ago, one told the story of seeing a mob with sticks chasing a stray dog. They beat it while the animal tried to escape. Finally, the bleeding dog fell to the ground under the pummeling of the crowd, then before their eyes changed into a young man, complete with bleeding wounds on his body. The pastor wanted to know: What does Christian theology have to say about that?

Recently I ordered a textbook for a theology course at the unversity where I teach. The book was published recently in the West, by Western scholars. Though the book has much to commend it, my Kenyan students will look in vain to find any framework by which to respond to the question the West African pastor asked me, yet Benin and Kenya are close in outlook. In January 2016, a story was reported in multiple news outlets that breathes the same enchanted worldview. Purportedly, a Kenyan man had his motorcycle stolen. To find out who had taken it, and to get it back, he went to the witchdoctor, who allegedly sent a swarm of bees. The bees split into two groups, one enveloping the missing motorcycle, the other attacking the supposed thief. As reported in one French language edition of the story, people sent for the witchdoctor, who then made the bees leave. One Kenyan official gave an alternative explanation, reporting that a queen bee had become lodged in the handlebars, which explains the swarming of the rest of the hive. It was one event but explained through two very different pairs of spectacles.

The re-enchantment of the West and the ongoing enchantment of sub-Saharan Africa raise several questions in my mind:

  1. What place does science education have in curriculum of public and private schools? Is its purpose de-enchantment?
  2. Does an acknowledgment of cause/effect in the universe as explained by science necessarily exclude supplementary explanations of other agents such as witchdoctors, or – to use the Western paradigm – witches, warlocks, or wizards?
  3. Must Christian theology in a postmodern world rediscover categories that appear in older systematic theologies, including the discussion of angels and demons? Are there any other voids in our teaching that encourage African Christians to seek explanations – and sometime, solutions to their everyday problems, like stolen bikes – in sub-Christian ways, by means other than addressing their needs to God in prayer?
  4. Western views of magic as portrayed in fiction suggest both benevolent and malevolent forms, so-called “good witches” or “good wizards.” Can we mentally compartmentalize this as harmless fantasy – merely the entertaining product of a healthy imagination – or are we unwittingly encouraging dabbling with very real malevolent forces, to our own spiritual harm?
  5. How do we adress issues around magic while avoiding sowing fear, keeping our eyes firmly on the truth that Christ has vanquished evil in all of its forms? In desiring to be relevant, is it possible that we’ll end up making the devil and his minions larger and more powerful than they are? We must not inflate the power of the demonic by giving it undue attention, detracting from the surpassing greatness and power of the Triune God, a God who is never far away but present and active in our world.

These are areas that are ripe for theologizing based upon solid exegesis of biblical material. Having been trained in a Western setting, I did not have eyes to see Scripture in-light of the kind of question that the Beninese pastor asked me. After twenty years in Africa, I’m more sensitive to such questions. However, they are better dealt with by local African theologians who can marry scientific explanations (where applicable) to the more supernaturalistic worldview that they know so well and that is apparent in Scripture.

In light of the re-enchantment of the West, we are witnessing a golden opportunity for Western and African Christian theologians to put their heads together to provide biblical answers to practical questions but from a holistic worldview. Let us not be satisfied to let vacuums in our thinking persist. Answers that honor God are there if we are willing to seek them. We owe the church and our world nothing less.


Photo credit: By Douglas Baulch (Douglas Baulch) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A ceremony to remember – Brad and Emily

croffords_weddingOn November 4, 2016 – in Des Moines, Iowa – I had the honor of performing the wedding ceremony for my son, Brad, who married Emily (Em) Papp. What a day of joy that was for me, Amy, and all gathered! With Brad’s and Em’s blessing, I share below the wedding homily delivered that day.


“Be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving”

Ephesians 4:32 (NLT)

Emily and Brad,

Today is a day of great joy, a day that together you have anticipated for a long time. Life offers us many gifts. We are grateful that in God’s timing, you have received the gift of each other.

As a couple, you have done what many have tried but failed to do. Over several years, you have found creative ways to make a long-distance relationship flourish. Through 11 hour drives between Iowa and Oklahoma, through many “Skype dates” and too many text messages and phone calls to count, you’ve nurtured your love and watched it grow. That effort is praiseworthy. Look around you. On this your wedding day, we your family and friends strongly affirm our love and support for you. We who have walked the same road before you say with confidence that the person who finds a trustworthy companion for life has found a very good thing.

As wife and husband, you are beginning a new and rewarding chapter in your story. You will now enjoy companionship in close proximity and the many joys it brings. Yet most married couples can testify to the adjustment that newlyweds must make, moving from the all-too-familiar “I” to the less familiar “we”. Deuteronomy 24:5 speaks of the challenge of two becoming one:

“A newly married man doesn’t have to march in battle. Neither should any related duties be placed on him. He is to live free of such responsibilities for one year, so he can bring joy to his new wife.”

The Apostle Paul, though unmarried, provided simple advice that is useful to everyone but particularly for spouses early in their marriage. In Ephesians 4:32 (NLT) he writes: “…Be kind to each other, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”

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The high-wire of sound doctrine

high-wireFalse doctrine can have a ring of truth to it. That’s what makes it attractive. But there’s a catch: Wrong teaching results when a single truth is isolated from other balancing truths.

Two examples come to mind. The first is from Psalm 46:10a (NIV): “Be still and know that I am God.” In our frenetic world, many of us need to rediscover the practice of quietness. Catherine Marshall spoke of the “prayer of relinquishment.” We must come to a place of stillness where we acknowledge that God is God and we are not.

Yet for the person who has trouble gearing down and waiting on the Lord, there is a polar opposite. This is the individual who is passive almost to the point of fatalism. Their motto is que sera, sera – whatever will be, will be. Such a person doesn’t need Psalm 46:10; instead, give them a dose of James 2:17. Tell them that faith without works is dead. Remind them to put feet to their prayers.

A second example has to do with how we describe God’s character. I’m reading through A More Christlike God by Bradley Jersak. It’s representative of 21st century North American writers who emphasize the love and grace of God, and what amazing attributes of our Triune God these are! For those who have lingered in oppresssive, legalistic settings in the church, a book like Jersak’s is salve for a bruised spirit, just what the doctor  ordered.

But love and grace are not all Scripture has to say about God. Have we so emphasized these two truths that we risk losing sight of counterbalancing truths apparent in the life of Christ and the New Testament as a whole? Jesus was willing to make a whip and drive moneychangers from the Temple, an event so pivotal to the narrative that it is recorded in all four Gospels (John 2:13-17, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-47, Matthew 21:12-13). And the writer to the Hebrews thunders that our God is a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29, NIV). The same Bible that affirms God’s love affirms God’s wrath. If we are unable or – worse yet – unwilling to hold these twin truths together, then we’ll merely repeat the mistake of the Israelites who got bored at the foot of Mt. Sinai, forging our own golden calf, reshaping God into how we imagine the LORD should be instead of bowing before who God actually is. God ends up as the stereotypical doting and permissive grandpa, the substitute teacher who kids at first think is fun but ultimately whose clueless classroom management cannot earn their respect.

Sound doctrine is a balancing act. Scripture is nuanced and we can’t afford to lean too far in one direction or another, or we may tumble off the high wire. Let’s avoid falsehood by continuing to balance truth with truth.

_________

Image credit: Music Teacher’s Helper

 

 

Mirrors and transformation

hand_mirrorWhen I was young, barbers cut your hair with the customer facing away from the mirror. Then, when the cut was done, they’d dramatically spin you around for the big reveal. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a barber do that. But even if you’re sitting facing the mirror throughout the hair cut, you’ll never know what it looks like in the back unless they give you a hand miror. Then, you can tell by the reflection of the hand mirror into the larger mirror whether the cut in back is correct.

The apostle James knew something about the value of mirrors. In James 1:23-25 (NIV), he writes:

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it–not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it–they will be blessed in what they do.

James lived centuries before the invention of motion pictures, but if he lived today, I think he’d agree that film can serve as a mirror, revealing the character of the one who looks in it. I was reminded of this tonight watching the 1967 masterpiece, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

John Prentice (played by Sidney Poitier) – an accomplished tropical medicine doctor – is a 39-year-old widower. On vacation to Hawaii, he meets the lovely 23-year-old Joey Drayton (played by Katharine Houghton). Together just 10 days, they fall madly in love and plan to marry. There is only one hitch. Prentice is African-American (or “Negro” as was the common label of the time) while Drayton is white. While the fiancée insists her liberal activist parents (played by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn) will have no problem with the union, the fiancé is not so sure. They fly to San Francisco to meet Joey’s parents and have dinner. Suffice it to say that the daughter has naively misread her parents, particularly her father. The angst ratchets up from there and the hard lessons begin.

The movie takes me back to a Sunday dinner conversation around 1975 when I was twelve. My paternal grandmother – a fine Christian  woman now decesased – was visiting. That Sunday our pastor and the evangelist (who was at our church holding a revival) were among our dinner guests. When we were all done eating, we lingered around the table, enjoying good conversation. Somehow, we got on to the topic of so-called “interracial marriage.” When my grandmother expressed her opposition to African-Americans and white people marrying each other, she point blank asked the ministers what they thought. There was a long, awkward silence. The question clearly made them uncomfortable. Instead of answering, they changed the topic.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (GWCTD) made viewers squirm in 1967, and eight years later around my family’s dinner table, the same topic made people squirm. I wish that I could say that in 2016 we’d put race issues behind us. Sadly, they seem as alive as ever. Yet when the topic does arise, instead of talking it through and listening to each other, are we like the pastor and evangelist? Do we squirm, anxious to change the topic?

It’s not fun to look in the mirror of movies like GWCTD. They force us – indeed, they force me – to take stock of my own prejudices. Do I really believe, like Martin Luther King, Jr., that what matters most is not the color of one’s skin but the content of one’s character? And surely this is larger than skin pigmentation. What about those who are followers of other religions not my own? To adapt King’s maxim, do I truly believe that what matters most is not the “color” of one’s religion but the content of one’s character? We say as followers of Christ that loving God and loving others is the essence of our belief system (Mark 12:28-31). But are we living up to that profession when we seem ready to write off more than a billion people in our world – to “other” them – because a tiny minority among them has done heinous things? Where is the Christian love in that? 

Film is a mirror. Sometimes when we look in the mirror, we don’t like what we see. Yet the jarring realization that our attitudes are ugly can be the opportunity for change. James 1:25 holds out the hope of “freedom.” When we listen to God’s law of love and continue in it, God can liberate us from the prejudices that bind us. Only then can we be “blessed” in what we do. Using the mirrors he places in our lives, may the Lord Christ open our eyes to the hidden but deadly hatred that lies in our hearts. May he transform us into the kind of people whose love knows no boundaries!

6 lessons from a climb

My companions on our November 12, 2016 excursion (left to right): Daryl Johnson, Matt Madtes, and Jordan North
My companions on our November 12, 2016 excursion (left to right): Daryl Johnson, Matt Madtes, and Jordan North

It’s an exaggeration to call it a climb. Ascending to the top of Mt. Longonot (2,560 meters above sea level) in Kenya’s Rift Valley is more like a steep hike. While you may not need any gear beyond a good pair of running shoes or hiking boots, plenty of water in your backpack, and a camera, reaching the summit of Longonot yields some rich life lessons. Here’s what I’ve learned from three times up-and-down this fascinating dormant volcano:

  1. Walking alone is O.K., but having companions is better. Conversation along the path helps pass the time, and when you get tired, an encouraging word from a friend can do wonders. Sometimes, you can even lend a steadying hand when the path gets too rocky for a fellow-traveler.
  2. Be willing to guide another hiker on to the right path. A seasoned hiker on the way up saw that I had taken a wrong turn on the way down, that I was heading for a dead end. He spoke up, warned me of the danger, and voice-guided me back to the right path. I was grateful.
  3. You need nourishment on the trail. Even if you’ve eaten a good breakfast, the hike is a long one. Make sure to eat something along the way. I shared a bag of raisins – one of my favorite healthy snacks – and others shared their snacks with me.
  4. Stay together. One of our group got a burst of energy and blazed ahead. When he realized several of us were taking too long, out of concern, he doubled-back to check on us. We need people like that for whom “winning” is less important than making sure every one is still making progress.
  5. Carry a walking stick. Especially on the way down, your legs will weaken since the path is steep and you feel like an 18-wheeler braking as it descends. The stick helps you balance and takes some of the weight off your legs. And if a snake should appear – always a possibility in Kenya – at least you have a weapon for defense! I always carry my four iron. I’ve never hit golf balls far with it, but it’s plenty useful on Longonot.
  6. The scenic summit makes the tough ascent worth it. On the way back down, hikers verbally spur on those still struggling to ascend: “Keep going! It’s beautiful at the top.” In the case of Longonot, successful hikers are rewarded with the sight of a massive crater lined with verdant trees. The air is fresh and the view of the Rift Valley is breathtaking. All the effort pays off.

As in hiking, so it is in walking with Christ. It’s not “Jesus and me.” Rather, because we are part of a community of faith, it’s always “Jesus and we.” Take spiritual nourishment along the way and stay together.

Paul reminds us: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:9, NIV). The goal for every follower of Christ is eternal fellowship with the Triune God, resurrected life together in a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1-5). This is the “view from the top” and it’s worth every sacrifice.

Compassion and justice, God’s two strong arms

two-strong-armsOne of the noblest sentiments in the American pledge of allegiance is the final line intended to describe the United States of America: “…with liberty and justice for all.” As a people, we Americans have strived to live up to that ideal yet have often fallen short.

Psalm 146:6-7a says nothing of liberty, but it does address justice:

God: the maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, God: who is faithful forever, who gives justice to people who are oppressed, who gives bread to people are starving! (CEB, italics added)

The passage continues (vv. 7b-9), providing a seven-fold description of divine justice.  Our just God…

  • frees prisoners
  • gives sight to the blind
  • lifts up those who are stooped
  • loves the righteous
  • protects immigrants
  • helps orphans and widows
  • frustrates the wicked

The church’s mission in the world rests on a simple premise:

Find out what God is concerned about then join God in that concern.

The common denominator for five of the seven groups of people on the list is powerlessness. What can those who are incarcerated give us? Not much. Or how about the destitute woman who has lost her husband, or the child left alone after the death of their parents? As for immigrants, they are sometimes in the most precarious position of all. Yet it is not the rich and famous who receive the LORD’s special favor. Rather, it is those who seemingly have little to offer in return – the last, the lost, and the least – who have captured the loving heart of our Father. In a world that coldly pushes them to the margins as unimportant, God draws them in, wrapping them up in loving arms, whispering comfort. His compassion is naturally accompanied by the stubborn pursuit of justice on their behalf.

The parable is told of a farmer whose land was adjacent to a river. One day when tending his field by the river bank, he saw a woman flailing in the water. The farmer quickly called his family and together they fished her out of the water to safety. An hour later, the scenario repeated itself, except this time it was a man in peril. The rescues continued all afternoon, until they had saved half a dozen from the river. The farmer’s daughter finally spoke up. “Dad,” she asked, “I’m glad we’ve been able to rescue these people from drowning. But I wonder: Shouldn’t we go up river and see who has been pushing them in?”

Psalm 146:6-7 carves out a place for both the exercise of compassion and the pursuit of justice. God feeds the hungry and gives justice to the oppressed.

Mercy and advocacy are the two strong arms that rescue and empower those most vulnerable.*

If God is concerned about prisoners, immigrants, widows, orphans, the blind and those crushed by life’s burdens, then how can the church – the People of God – not also be concerned?

Yet there are two more groups of people on the list, namely, the righteous and the wicked. If we as God’s people are to be like God, then we must do as God does. And what does God do? The LORD loves the righteous (v.8) but frustrates the wicked (v.9). Here is where the church can set an example for society. Do we praise our children when they do virtuous things or do we ignore them, thereby discouraging that behavior in the future? Similarly, do we disapprove of those among us whose self-centeredness makes them callous, even wicked, or do we elevate them? It pays to study what God does then follow God’s example. To do the opposite is to invite disaster.

We serve an amazing God! The LORD models how we can walk a different path, one of heartfelt concern for the powerless. Psalm 146 reminds us that this concern entails both compassion and the pursuit of justice, Gods two strong arms. In times that risk frustrating the righteous and rewarding the wicked, let’s reverse the order. Let’s love God’s way, resisting the urge to marginalize the powerless. Instead, let us enfold the last, the lost, and the least.

_____

*Note: I am indebted to former Nazarene Education Commissioner, Dr Jerry Lambert, who spoke of evangelism and education as the “two strong arms of the Body of Christ.” I have adapted that imagery for this essay.

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Image credit: Estudos Gospelmais

Longing for the unshakable kingdom

crossOn the morning of November 9, 2016 – barring any recounts – roughly half the population of the United States will be disillusioned. Why? After an election where emotions have run higher than any election in recent memory, their candidate for President will have lost.

Let me prescribe a remedy for post-election malaise. Carefully read Hebrews 12:18-29. It’s a reminder to God’s people that nations are temporary. When all the shaking stops, only one thing is unshakable. Only one thing remains, and that is the kingdom of God:

 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire’ (vv. 28-29, NIV).

“When you pray,” Jesus advised, avoid “empty words.” Instead, we should pray to our heavenly Father: “Bring in your kingdom” (Matthew 6:10, CEB). When we seek God’s kingdom first, everything else falls into place (Matthew 6:33).

History is littered with nations and empires that were never supposed to end. The Roman Empire – though it continued hundreds of years – eventually crumbled. Hitler’s Third Reich was to have lasted a thousand years. Instead, it collapsed after a mere twelve (1933-1945), a single brush stroke on history’s broad canvas. The United States was born 240 years ago and is showing signs of old age. Yet whether she lasts another 200 years or only another 20, I will not despair. As a follower of Christ, my hope is not in the governmental structures of this world. Rather, my hope is in Christ and in his unshakable kingdom. His is a rock-solid promise that one day post-resurrection we will look back and celebrate that the “kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 11:15, NIV). When Presidents and the countries they preside have come and gone, we have an eternal King!

Christian, where is your hope? Look beyond the fleeting structures of this world. Instead, let us join hands, working in love and unity for the only kingdom that endures.