David

Missionaries and Culture

Missionaries do their work in a perilous environment. Such has been the rise of ideas such as “multi-culturalism”, that many missionaries now go by a different title: aidworkers, social-workers, educators, or even consultants. Opting for different titles is understandable. In the popular imagination, missionary is increasingly synonymous with colonialist, imperialist, or patronising religious types “forcing” their fundamentalist notions of exclusive paths to God. 

For the missionaries on the ground, the bigger challenge is not how unbelievers perceive their work. The far greater challenge is communicating Christianity to a culture whose worldview, language, customs, art, and social structure has been shaped by religious beliefs different to, and often hostile to, biblical Christianity. 

Those with little experience of this underestimate the size of the task. One might think it is merely a matter of finding correspondent words, symbols and media in the target culture, and simply translating from one culture to another. Sometimes that can be done. 

But here is the real dilemma: what do you do when the target culture has no words for what you need to communicate? What do you do when it has not developed its own writing system to read God’s Word? What do you do when its musical instruments have been used mostly for shamanistic ceremonies or for war-dances? What do you do if the commonly-practiced form of marriage is unbiblical? What do you do if the form of dress is shameful to the human made in God’s image?

According to some contemporary theories, you are not to judge such things. You are there to simply give out the propositional truths of the Gospel. Indeed, some missionaries have been taught the “cellophane-wrapping” view of culture. Culture is nothing more than the wrapping or packaging around the Gospel – meaningless and amoral in itself, simply an instance of varying human preference. Give out the message, and leave the cultural customs alone.

Serious missionaries know better. They know that within every culture there will be instances of God’s common grace: customs that produced social order, delicious meals, folk tales with moral power, social differentiation, special ceremonies, existing poems, songs, crafts, and artworks that can be used to illustrate and communicate biblical truths, and Paul did with the Greeks when quoting Epimenides, Aratus and Menander.

But they also know that cultures shaped by idolatry will have artworks that communicate idolatry, social customs that reinforce idolatry, and language reflective of idolatry. There will be gaping holes in the vocabulary, musical literacy and understanding of the world that need to be filled with Christian truth. There will be existing devices, technologies, and customs that cannot be used by Christians without severe confusion or strain on the conscience, which will need to be eliminated altogether, or transformed until they are no longer recognisable. Here the missionary is not simply co-opting and adapting what he finds; he is actively adding and removing in the name of helping an infant church learn to walk. 

The ability to do this skillfully requires the missionary become expert in two sets of meaning: biblical meaning, and cultural meaning. He must know what Christian truth and affection is, which means he cannot be a novice in the faith. He must then learn the meaning of his host culture, as completely as time allows. He need not become expert in evil (Ro 16:19), but he should be familiar enough with the culture to be able to readily understand the meaning of a certain musical instrument in the target culture, and whether it is consonant with Christian affections. He must continually be comparing Christian meaning with the symbols, devices, tools, customs, technologies, artworks, and media in the target culture. If he is not competent in both systems of meaning, two errors will result. 

One, he may ignore the system of meaning present in the culture, and simply impose the forms of meaning from his home culture. As we said, the missionary needs to do this where the target culture simply lacks the forms or devices to carry the weight of Christian truth. But this error is not simply introducing what is needed, it is ignoring what is present and may helpfully communicate truth. Christianity takes on a more foreign feel than necessary, often becoming a strange outpost of 1950s Americana on another continent. Believe it or not, this is the less serious error. 

Two, and more dangerously, he may uncritically adopt the system of meaning in the culture, believing that Christianity will be far more readily received and embraced if clothed in familiar symbols. His error is not simply that he translates the truth, it is that he does not carefully discern if some cultural forms will distort the message of Christianity once adopted. He avoids the ditch of paternalism, and swerves over into syncretism.

Missionaries need to be well-versed in the meaning of two worlds, and know how to use, adopt, reject, and adapt forms in the target culture, so that Christianity may progressively transform a people from “the empty tradition (anastrophe) received from [their] fathers” (1 Peter 1:18) into a people with honourable conduct (anastrophe) before the world (1 Pet 2:12). He is, whether he means to or not, a culture-maker and shaper. And who is sufficient for such things?

We Don’t Want Your White Man’s Religion

In Africa, particularly where black nationalist sentiments arise, it is not uncommon to hear the title of this post thrown around in conversation. Similarly, half-formed sentiments are uttered about missionaries who replaced the harmonious earth-religion of the peaceful indigenous people with their foreign religion, so as to steal their land and subjugate them.

The saddest irony of these assertions being made is that these sentiments are not even African. They were really birthed by Europeans influenced by the Enlightenment (particularly Rousseau and his “noble savage” idea). Those most vociferously calling for a pure African religious identity purged of the infection of European missionaries are unwittingly busy borrowing from other, less honourable, Europeans.

What is more important is whether there is any truth to these accusations. First, was the missionary movement of Christianity merely a disguised land-grab? Second, didn’t missionaries simply have their own culture, which they then imposed upon the indigenous people, unnecessarily displacing perfectly healthy cultural patterns?

Land-grabs in the name of religion are a painful and evil part of history. No defence of these can be offered, except that Jesus said his servants were not to fight for an earthly kingdom (Jo 18:36). When it was done, it was certainly not an act of obedience to Christ, or a legitimate part of missions. Missionaries are to plant churches, not conquer land. Too often, opportunistic politicians piggy-backed upon the genuine mission-work of missionaries (think Cecil John Rhodes using David Livingstone’s work).

The second question suffers from misunderstanding the meaning of culture. Did the missionaries have “their own culture”? Of course they did, as do we all. But if a culture is the incarnation of a religion, a religion externalised, then to the degree that those missionaries were allegiant to biblical Christianity, and to the degree that they had been shaped and formed by healthier forms of Christianity, their culture would have been a valid expression of Christian ideas.

The fact that these particular Christian missionaries were Caucasian is besides the point. What matters is if Christianity had come to dominate the worldview of the region in which they grew up. As it turns out, Christianity, in the broadest, trinitarian sense, came to dominate Europe for 1000 years. Pagan, warlike, and superstitious people in Europe were progressively transformed into the people that produced Milton, the Chartres Cathedral, the Magna Carta, Shakespearian Sonnets, and Bach. It had nothing to do with the amount of melanin in the skin, and everything to do with what worldview came to dominate.

In God’s providence, Christianity’s centre moved through the centuries from the Middle East, to Asia Minor, to North Africa, to Western Europe and to North America. During the era of the modern missionary movement (1750s onwards), Christianity was strongest in Europe and North America. Wherever it remained, it shaped those people, and their entire culture. Not perfectly, nor completely, but significantly. When Christians left their homelands to take the Gospel somewhere else, they were necessarily bringing the Gospel and their particular Christian culture to a people largely or totally bereft of it.

The same providence that centred Christianity in certain regions during certain eras also allowed that some continents or lands experienced centuries of what Romans 1 describes: the devolution that idolatry brings. That does not mean that no common grace existed in those places: Acts 14:17 says that it did. But to the degree that cultures were formed around animism, sun-worship, or some other form of idolatry, is the degree to which we would expect the image of God in them to have been further defaced and marred. We would expect their cultures, as the missionaries found them, to be externalisations of idolatry, as pre-Christian European culture certainly was.

Were those missionaries coming to a non-Christian culture then supposed to present a “culturally-neutral” Christianity to the people they evangelised? Such a thing is difficult to even conceptualise, let alone practise. A missionary not only teaches ideas, he teaches the people to sing, to speak purely, to dress modestly, to worship, to obey God in all of life. He must, and necessarily will, shape the culture of the people he evangelises.

He must start somewhere, and present the newly converted people some cultural forms, especially if the indigenous ones he finds present are irredeemably idolatrous in meaning. (This is worth exploring further, and we’ll do so in the next post.)

As an example, we might reference Robert Moffat in southern Africa, who not only translated the Bible into Tswana, but also many hymns. He produced the first Tswana hymnbook, and the first original hymn in Tswana.

Is this imposing “white culture” upon “black culture”? No, it is presenting translated forms of a Christian culture that grew up in Europe to an infant Christian culture in another place. As these people imbibe Christianity, and it shapes them for generations, they will eventually speak in their own voice. But you must learn to walk before you can sprint, and one of the healthier things that a newborn Christian culture can do is hear the songs, histories, poems, sermons, biographies, of the church universal. Avoiding these cultural forms in the name of ethnic nationalism is simply pride, and will not produce a pure “African” or “Asian” Christianity. It will likely produce another syncretised Christianity with idolatrous ideas mixed in with Christianity. The only way to see the idolatry in your own culture is to step away from it by being exposed to the culture of historic Christianity, which has spanned five continents, and two thousand years.

It took more than a millennium of Christian ideas in Europe to produce a Bach. We may still be centuries away from an African Bach, or a Chinese Notre Dame, or a Polynesian Watts. But that is a function of time, not of skin colour. In many ways, Christianity has taken hold in Africa, South America and south-east Asia a lot faster than it did in Europe. True, often the Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep. Often, pop culture is secularising the Christianity that emerges. But it remains to be seen how true Christianity will leaven the cultural lump in Africa, Asia, and South America.

Will Europeans and North Americans eventually be saying to missionaries from Africa, “We don’t want your black man’s religion”? Perhaps it will be sadly be the case. For man, ever seeking justification for his rebellion against God, finds great convenience in the excuse that the Gospel must be untrue because it was brought to him by people from a foreign nation, who had it before he did.

Christian Culture in Church History

A common error in the study of church history is to seek to find a version of one’s present branch of Christianity in the past. Since Christian doctrine and practice develop over the centuries, trying to find oneself in church history is like trying to find out how people in Shakespeare’s era texted one another, or trying to understand what Edward II’s position on globalism was. You won’t find covenant theology or dispensationalism (in the self-conscious, self-identified form) before the 17th century, cessationism (as a reaction to Pentecostalism) before the twentieth, or Baptists who hold to justification by faith before the 17th. There are no self-conscious, self-identified credobaptist, compatibilist, cessationist, creationist, complementarian, and chiliast believers like me more than a hundred years ago.  This doesn’t mean those positions are not biblical or did not exist in church history; it simply means the faith once delivered to the saints has been progressively understood by the saints. I won’t find in the early church a theological understanding that took 2018 years to develop.

Similarly, if it is an error to imagine some ancient version of one’s own church or denomination, it is equally an error to imagine that somewhere in history there existed a pristine and nearly perfect form of Christianity. The perfect group chosen usually depends upon the sympathies of the speaker: some of the Reformed imagine it was Calvin’s Geneva, certain Methodists picture the revivals under Wesley similarly, some Baptists think that the Metropolitan Tabernacle under Spurgeon was almost the Millennium, some anti-Calvinists pin their hopes on some pre-Reformation groups, such as the Waldenses, others romanticise the Middle Ages. But all of these had points of doctrine, practice and worship that were less than perfect, and revealed a church still in development. No straight line from the apostles to the present day exists.

Recognising these two errors might lead us to a faulty conclusion: the notion that there has never been an instance of Christian culture. To agree that no perfect example of Christianity exists in the past is not to assert that Christian culture has never existed. Quite the contrary.

This error comes from trying to judge or think about Christian culture in the abstract, rather than in the form of cultural phenomena and cultural artifacts. Concrete cultural artifacts produced by Christians exist in abundance: songs, paintings, poems, buildings, treatises, histories, sermons, buildings, customs, and the like. Wherever Christianity has taken hold of the majority of a population in one place, it will soon be seen shaping the sagas, political arrangements, clothing, technologies, and even language itself. If a culture is a religion externalised, then wherever Christianity becomes dominant, cultural forms representing that worldview will appear.

At what point can we say a form of Christian culture was in a certain place, for a certain time? It depends on how dominant Christianity became, how long its dominance held, and how healthy the form of Christianity was that was known and practiced. But that it has done so in many times and places is beyond dispute.

A second error follows the first. In trying to imagine a Christian culture in the abstract, a person assumes its incarnation will look identical in every instance. When he finds that Christians of varying ethnicities developed different forms of music, architecture, and literature, he wrongly concludes that one cannot speak about Christian culture at all. To him, the differences seem to eliminate any unifying principle.

What our interlocutor misses is glaring. The most interesting thing about comparing different cultural artifacts from different Christian communities is not that they are different, it is how similar they are. Indeed, while no one expects Armenian and Chinese Christianities to be identical, what is fascinating is to find equivalence in cultural forms between Christians separated by thousands of kilometres or hundreds of years.

Equivalence is the proper word. When two forms are equivalent between two groups, they may not share the same shape or incarnation, but they carry the same meaning in their respective communities. They are like the same idea in different languages.  Two reverent Christian communities will produce different cultural artifacts, but they will both have words for “reverence”, both have postures for reverence, both have combinations of musical notes for reverence. Often enough, a visitor from the one will be able to broadly decode the reverential tone of a form in the other. All this speaks of equivalence between two different instances of Christian culture.

Church history reveals something far more interesting than a pristine Christian culture in one time and place: very different ethnicities, languages, and traditions that often enough produced artifacts that have passed into common use of Christians around the world. The equivalence was sufficient to have “catholic” value.  The “leaven” of Christianity leavened the whole cultural lump of particular peoples and particular times, and so produced different Christian cultures.

But where we find strong equivalences in forms and artifacts between folk cultures, since they shared Christianity, we find something like Christian culture in its most general and extensive sense. These equivalences make up a universal, two thousand year-old tradition of orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy. And a tradition is simply a culture stretched over time.

Two Tests and Two Questions

I present my children with two written tests. They open the envelope of the first, and see the heading, “Dad Orthodoxy”. A series of questions about me follows, which they find delightfully easy. “What is your father’s first name?” “What colour are your father’s eyes?” “What is your father’s favourite meal?” “Where did your father grow up?” Having superior knowledge of my appearance, history, preferences, habits, and personality, they fly through the test. They are thoroughly Dad-orthodox.

They proceed to open the second envelope. Here they encounter the title “Dad Orthopathy”. Not knowing what orthopathy means (and at least one of them suspecting it might have something to do with feet), they shrug and plunge into the test. They find the questions here give them pause. “How should you address your father?” “What tone of voice should you use when disagreeing with your father?” “When has teasing and joking with your father become disrespectful?” “What are some ways you give honour to your father?

This test takes longer for my children to complete. They aren’t always sure if they have given the “correct” answers, which were unequivocal in the first test. They even have to stop and think about their relationship with me, and evaluate it carefully.

For all that, they know that it is possible to get wrong or incomplete answers on this test, too. Though the test requires different kinds of judgement, it still deals with truth: truth about their father. The first test deals with who their father is, the second deals with what their father deserves.

If we were to replace the father and children with God and His children, and imagine a similar set of tests, we might have a helpful picture of the dilemma of modern Christianity. Swathes of Christians would ace the first test, having learned by heart all kinds of doctrinal facts.

The second test would give everyone some difficulty. The real problem is not that it would be difficult for all Christians. The troubling thing is that it would make some Christians angry. They would feel the very asking of these questions is invasive. They would protest that the second exam consists of “trick questions”, with “no right answer”. They would argue that two Christians might write opposite things, and their cultural situation would make their respective answers correct in their context. They would accuse the examiner of asking narrow, even culturally-insensitive, questions.

So here are our two questions.

  1. Does the Bible give us forms of both exams? Does the Bible teach us both who God is, and what He deserves? Does it require both right belief in who God is, and a right response to who God is?
  2. Why do evangelicals (of whatever stripe, including fundamentalists) deny that the second exam exists, or that one can fail it? Why do they care only about the first exam, and act as if orthodoxy is the sum total of our obligation? Why do they resent the discussion of orthopathy?

 

Culture, Not Race

Scripture does not define the word culture, but it certainly describes the phenomenon of culture-making. Humans are meaning-making creatures, who fashion their world after their values, religions, and world-views.

The Bible also describes the behaviour or way of life that comes from a certain culture. The Greek word anastrophe is translated conduct, or way of life. In contrast to those who define culture as “everything people do” the biblical writers see one’s anastrophe as rooted in one’s religion. That is, idolatry and false systems produce one kind of anastrophe, whereas Christianity is supposed to produce another.

as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct [anastrophe], because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct [anastrophe – verb form] yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear; knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct [anastrophe] received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. (1 Pet. 1:14-19)

Peter contrasts one form of culture with another. One was received by tradition (which is simply a culture stretched over time), the other is shaped by the new life in Christ.

Here we see the tragic misstep of equating culture with race. For if culture and race are synonymous, no culture can be critiqued. One would then be judging the value of a people based upon skin colour, which is racism proper.

Scripture does not critique people based upon their ethnos (race). It does, however, critique their anastrophe, which is to say, their culture. If the culture of a people has produced immorality, idolatry, perversions, Scripture condemns the culture. In condemning the culture, it is condemning the belief-system that created that behaviour. 

One sees the sad result of equating race and culture in South Africa. Here, untaught believers will still refer to “my culture” as a contrast to another believer’s “culture”. You will routinely hear people say that missionaries brought “their culture” and imposed it upon Africa. Some dear black believers are desperately trying to discover some pristine form of “black Christian culture” untouched by Western hands. Believers speak of certain ways of worship as belonging to one culture (by which they mean ethnicity) as opposed to another. 

Now I, for one, rejoice in the diversity of our country, and of my local church. I love the many colours that look back at me on a Sunday morning. I enjoy being called “Mfundisi” (teacher) by some of the members. I enjoy tasting, hearing and seeing the mix of foods, languages and social customs that mingle in our local church. A multi-ethnic church is a joy. Racism is an evil, and I will, as the occasion suggests, write and preach against racism as a sin. 

But our church is not “multi-cultural”. That would be equivalent to saying, it is “multi-anastrophal”, or “multi-religious”. No, in the biblical sense, our church is uni-cultural. We love and honour Christ. With Scripture as our final authority, it shapes the loves, beliefs and behaviour of those who call themselves part of our church. However much melatonin the skin of the various members contain, however many of our country’s eleven national languages (yes, eleven!) they speak, however different some of our social customs may be, we are actually bound and shaped by one culture: Christian culture. 

I recognise speaking of “Christian culture” raises several other questions. What place is there for differing expressions of music or art in this supposed Christian culture? Has Christian culture existed in the past, and what did it look like? What if one ethnic group has dominated in historic Christian culture? What element of missions was pure ethnic preference, and what was true Christian culture? Should modern missionaries attempt to leave the cultures they find in as pristine a state as possible? We will attempt to deal with these questions as we rehabilitate this mangled word. 

Culture – More Than Creation

If the word culture is to be useful, it must define something. It must name and describe a discrete phenomenon in the world. A useful definition must limit its subject, so that we could easily say what is not culture.

The problem with many definitions found in Evangelical literature is that they seem to include everything. If everything in the created order is an instance of culture, then we may as well scrap the word, and speak plainly of creation.

Culture is not the created order. Time, space, and matter are not culture, and Genesis 1 and 2 are not the account of God creating culture. The creation is used in creating culture, but it is not culture itself.

Culture is not the world, as the Bible variously uses the term to mean the created order, mankind, the age we are in, or the system of thought and habit that opposes God.

As Christians dependent upon Scripture for our understanding of reality, we face a real difficulty in defining culture precisely. Scripture does not contain the word. The English word cultureis used in its modern sense from the 19th century. We’re then in the dilemma of either reading into Scripture a modern but false construct, or of locating in Scripture a real phenomenon, one which Scripture names differently.

What Scripture does describe is what man does. Man is a meaning-making creature. He orders his world to incarnate and symbolise his understanding of the meaning of reality. In Genesis 1, God turns chaos into order. Man, made in God’s image, is told to extend this work throughout the world, turning what is less ordered into something more ordered and meaningful. Humans do this because they are like God. They do not create as He creates, but they do take the raw unordered creation and shape it into systems of meaningful order. They do this not only to the physical world, but to the life of the mind, to matters intellectual and moral.

This phenomenon is culture-making. Humans make cultures. A culture grows out of a cultus (religion). The people share the same vision of what is behind and beyond this world. They agree on what the world is, on what man is, and on who are deities ruling over all. They agree on the moral order that should govern life. In short, a culture incarnates and expresses a religion. Everything in a culture is affected by the religion: art, science, jurisprudence, economics, politics and social etiquette. Religion is the lens through which all of life is viewed and understood. The group of people sharing a location, sharing this religion, then shape their world so as to cultivate their idea of reality.

The account of the Tower of Babel reveals a time when mankind had one culture, spoke one language, and was intent on symbolising their one idolatrous religion with a Tower. God’s scattering of the nations was both judgement and mercy. In the diversifying of language (and therefore of religion and culture), God “determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of u” (Acts 17:26-27)

The call of Abram is the beginning of God creating a culture for Himself, from which will come the redemption of all other cultures.

Cultures are humanly created systems of meaning. They are systems of meaning growing out of a cultus, that in turn cultivate a shared sentiment about reality.

Ten Mangled Words: “Culture”

Jackhammers are not the ideal tool for mixing cake batter. Some mess will almost certainly result. Evangelical Christians using the word ‘culture’ often remind one of a baker with a such a power tool. When most Evangelicals begin writing or speaking on culture, one winces. A migraine is certainly on its way.

The word culture, in the hands of Evangelicals is plasticine. It’s verbal play-dough, and can be shaped nearly infinitely. Here are some favourite forms of those pontificating on culture:

1) Culture is “the stuff people do and the way they are”. This definition has the nifty distinction of including everything, and excluding nothing. Everything is culture. Of course, when a word means everything, the disadvantage is that it simultaneously defines nothing.

2) Culture is race. Skin-colour, and in some cases, home language, is equivalent to culture. For this reason, the church must be “multi-cultural”, and multiculturalism is touted and celebrated by some Christians, who should have committed Proverbs 17:28 to memory.

3) Culture is “the way of life” in a city, or nation. Music, food, clothing, customs, attitudes are put into the blender, and the puree that results is called “their culture”.

But none of these will do. Culture cannot be everything for it to be a useful concept. Culture is definitely not the quasi-secular concept of race. Culture is not a collection of habits. When Christians think of culture in these terms, we can expect calamitous results.

If there is one word that Christians should be especially careful to define, it is culture. After all, culture is formative and determinative in every area that matters: worship, discipleship, evangelism, and missions. What and how you sing, how you present the Gospel, your idea of Christian devotion, and your approach to matters of conscience are all determined by your understanding of culture, and how that understanding is worked out into life and ministry. Indeed, when we “export” Christianity in the form of global missions, our understanding of culture is tested at nearly every point. A gelatinous understanding of culture leads to embracing and endorsing what should be rebuked, and importing and imposing what ought to be left at home.

But how many seminaries teach on culture in missiology, besides pointing out the obvious (“people will do things very differently where you’re going”)? How many apologetics classes teach the meaning of culture, and how it shapes presuppositions, instead of merely harping on about axiomatic presuppositions? How many pastoral theology classes explain what a Christian culture looks like, instead of merely talking knowingly about contextualisation? How many church history classes are concerned with tracing the development and decline of Christian culture through the ages, instead of using it to produce hagiographies? One wonders how an idea so central to Christianity goes mostly undefined through years of ministerial training. And when the leaders are fuzzy and vague on this idea, few of their people will do much better.

Does it matter? It may not matter if the average Christian cannot formally define culture properly. It does matter when his idea of culture is amorphous and secular. Such a Christian will lack a crucial element of the Christian life: discernment. Understanding culture is fundamental to understanding cultural phenomena, and it is cultural phenomena that we bump into all the time: music, language, dress, conventions, customs, technologies, foods, social structures, ethical matters. When a Christian does not understand the meaning of these things, he cannot respond obediently to them. He cannot discern their meaning and their proper use, so he cannot be pleasing to God in the areas that he lacks discernment. In sum, the Christian life is incarnated in culture, and a faulty view of culture will lead to minor and major errors in judgement.

For this reason, rescuing the word culture from its mangled form is no mere academic pursuit. It is how we obey God in the present world.

The Unexpected Adoration of the Magi

In Kevin T. Bauder’s essay “The Completeness of the Incarnation“, he echoes and explains a series of insightful observations made by Leo Steinberg, writing for Harper’s Magazine in March of
1984. In explaining Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Adoration of the Magi, Steinberg explains how artists depicted a fundamental truth of Christianity, adored and celebrated at Christmas. The way they did so takes us aback at first, until we understand.

Domenico Ghirlandaio

Consider Ghirlandaio’s work. The scene is recognisable. Mary holds Jesus, as the Magi examine Him. What we do not notice at first, until closer scrutiny reveals it, is what exactly the Magi are gazing at. They are looking on, in astonished wonder, at the Child’s genitals.

Sandro Botticelli

One can see the very same posture and gaze in Botticelli’s version of The Adoration, and in many others, particularly Ricci and Veronese.

Note, this is not the profane treatment of sexuality so common in modern media, where prurient curiosity is satisfied with shameful exposure, and where the objectification of the sex act is foisted on us in the name of “gritty reality”. Nothing here is coarse or debased, but has instead the same tasteful veiling that is found in Song of Songs. It may be hard for those in a pornographied culture to imagine such a depiction of nudity as anything except a stimulant for immorality, but realising that these portraits were for religious edification should give us pause before assuming so.

But it is nevertheless an odd phenomenon, upon first encounter. Why would so many artists depict the Wise Men showing fascination with reproductive organs?

Filippino Lippi

The point is a theological one. As the Magi have come to worship the King, they are staggered to find out that He is human, in every respect. His humanity is not a mere appearance, a facade hiding His true Deity. His humanity is not a super-human, supra-human, or sub-human one. He is human in every respect, including that aspect most despised by Gnostics and celebrated by Epicureans: sexuality.

The Gnostics particularly despised sexuality. Certain strands of Gnosticism saw the body as evil, and either veered into asceticism or unbridled sensuality (since the body was not significant for higher, spiritual matters). But Christianity taught that God the Son added to himself a true human nature, including a rational soul and mind, so that His humanity was like ours in every respect, yet without sin. John responded to early Gnosticism with these words: “By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.” (1 Jn. 4:2-3)

Paolo Veronese

Paolo Veronese

“Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 Jn. 5:5)

For Christ to be human in every respect, it includes our sexuality. He did not bypass or omit this aspect of our humanness, because of its abuse or proneness to be used sinfully. Indeed, since man’s sexuality was part of God’s original creation, blessed and pronounced good by God Himself, the Second Adam was like the first in every respect.

Pieter Aertsen

 

Further, the Incarnation was a means to an end. For there to be a mediation between God and man, the mediator must have equal sympathies with both parties. For there to be union between God and man, there must exist between them a God-Man. In other words, the Incarnation took place so that the Cross could take place. On the Cross, Jesus redeemed only that which He participated in. If He participated in only 80% of our humanity, we could be only 80% redeemed, which is to say, not at all.

If the Enlightenment attacks on the Bible led some to diminish and dilute the Deity of Christ, perhaps the over-correction in our era has been to underemphasise His humanity. But a superhuman Saviour is not Good News, for He could only be a substitute for superhumans. A subhuman Saviour is not goodwill to all men, but goodwill to subhumans.

Sebastion Ricci

The Good News is Hebrew 2:14-18: “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham. Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.” (Heb. 2:14-18)

So it turns out that these paintings of the Magi were not really about the Magi at all. They were beautiful, discreet, and evocative ways of celebrating the Incarnation of Jesus Christ: “truly God and truly Man;…acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ.”

Lo, He abhors not the virgin’s womb. Come, let us adore Him.

Relevance in the Eye of the Beholder

A book on chastity may not seem relevant to teenagers necking in a parked car. First-aid kits don’t seem relevant to two boys beginning a scuffle. Wedding vows don’t appear relevant to a person plunging into an affair. When we are morally committed to a course of action, it narrows the horizon of what we see as important, practical, or useful.

We live in a culture which is furiously committed to sexual perversion, to a life of diversionary amusements, and to the accumulation of creature comforts. Avid participants in this culture will have a very different view of relevance to that of a faithful Christian.

For a Christian, relevance is determined by a permanent standard: what pleases God, as revealed in Scripture. This standard is nuanced by our historical understanding of the Christian faith. With this in place, a Christian rejects several mangled forms of the idea of relevance.

First, relevance is not determined by how current or novel something is. The idols of contemporaneity, “progress”, and innovation have no intrinsic purchase on whether something is valuable, useful, or pertinent. To equate relevance with novelty is a sub-Christian understanding of the world.

Second, relevance is not determined by how popular and useful something seems to a generation wise in their own eyes. If Proverbs teaches us anything, it is that fools feel quite justified in their self-destructive path, and openly scoff and mock the way of wisdom.

Third, relevance is not determined by how easily understood and plausible something seems to others. A lack of spiritual understanding is charged as spiritual dullness and immaturity, not as a faulty message or failure to connect.

Fourth, relevance is not determined by how notorious and famous something becomes. The cream rises to the top, they say, but so does the scum. When all men speak well of you, you are in mortal danger, said Jesus.

A Christian understands relevance because he understands what man is, and what man is for. If you understand man as a creature made by and for God, you can understand what has, as Webster’s defines it “significant and demonstrable bearing” on his existence.

In this sense, relevance is determined by whoever is making the judgement. If the beholder is an unbeliever committed to self-rule and self-indulgence, you can be sure the claims of Christianity will seem “irrelevant” to him. Our goal is not to “make Christianity relevant” to him. Our goal is to show him his whole concept of what is valuable is skewed and rebellious. In other words, the only way for a rebel to consider Christianity relevant is if he becomes, by regeneration, a worshipper.

On Baby Grands and Expensive Hymnals

“Why this waste?”, said the greediest member of the Twelve. Judas’ supposed concern with helping the poor and for efficient use of ministry finances was really a facade for his unvarnished envy. Judas wanted money, and like every jealous soul, disliked money being spent lavishly on someone else.

The sentiment that it is frivolous waste to spend money on anything except dire need is popular among some Christians. It’s an easy sentiment to have, even a lazy one, perhaps. What could be a better use of money than giving it to those who have the least, right? And what could be a more wasteful use of money than spending more on those who already have enough, correct? Such “automatic-entitlement” functions rather like the Left’s politics of victimisation. Find a race, gender, or ‘sexual orientation’ that has been supposedly oppressed, and such a group automatically receives the unassailable position of victim, requiring special treatment, and requiring no defence of its now-privileged status. The same Leftist sentimentalism often brews within Christianity, and bubbles out when spending is on anything except extreme need.

My church is not wealthy, relative to some others in the city. Our monthly budget is exactly half of some of our sister churches not far from us. Of course, that same budget is several times larger than some of the other churches we know and fellowship with. That’s simply life, and as anyone who understands biblical economics knows, inequality is not injustice. 

But given our middle-sized budget, what justification is there for spending a considerable amount of the hard-earned and saved money of our church on a very expensive musical instrument, and on hard-cover hymnals?  How could we do this, amidst a sea of poverty? “Why this waste?”, one might opine. Why not a few guitars and a simple Powerpoint projection?

One of the best answers comes from C.S. Lewis, in his essay Learning in War-time. Lewis faced a similar criticism during World War 2. What was the point of having scholars study medieval literature or Anglo-Saxon linguistics when there were Nazis bombing European cities? Wasn’t this an almost literal enactment of fiddling while Rome burned?

Lewis first countered that the ‘need’, be it wartime efforts or a crying social need, has never been enough for humans to suspend humane learning.  “Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never came. …They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.”

But what of the Gospel, missions and church-planting? Lewis realised that the sentiment that what is ultimate must capture all our thinking and acting is superficially compelling: “How can you be so frivolous and selfish as to think about anything but the salvation of human souls?”

Lewis answered in two ways. First, he pointed out that conversion does not make one a monomaniac, possessed of only one goal and activity. “Before I became a Christian I do not think I fully realized that one’s life, after conversion, would inevitably consist in doing most of the same things one had been doing before: one hopes, in a new spirit, but still the same things.”

Second, he recognised that were Christians to supposedly give up these ‘frivolous’ activities, the vacuum would only draw in inferior substitutes. We cannot escape our nature. “If you attempted, in either case, to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better. You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or in the line: if you don’t read good books you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions you will fall into sensual satisfactions.”

Christians must continue to pursue the highest and best, even in the presence of dire need. No period of undisturbed tranquility is just over the horizon, the arrival of which will then permit a Golden Age of pursuing the best that has been thought or written. The time for beauty, higher learning, and the pursuit of excellence is now, whether we are in Monaco or Monrovia. If we, in the name of wartime-lifestyle-Gospel-centred-radical-whatever-you-call-it, eschew beautiful instruments and quality hymnals, all that will happen is we will sing inferior songs on inferior instruments.

Certainly, there is the danger of contented complacency, enjoying Laodicean luxury. Certainly, there will be vast disparities between what one church can do as opposed to another. But it is a fallacy to equate the pursuit of beauty with elitism or self-pampering. If a church gives a serious chunk of its monthly budget to missions, church-planting  and to needs within its church, while spending considerably to sing with excellence, it is simply doing what Christians should do, whatever their circumstances: love God as best you can, and love your neighbour as best you can.