Monday, August 16, 2010

Qur'an burning as a way for Christians to honor God?

The news recently reported that a church in Florida plans to burn the Qur’an on 9/11, to remember victims of the attack on the Twin Towers, and to “take a stand against Islam” (see (Fortunately – from my perspective – a number of other Christians have denounced and opposed plan – see also

I would simply like to comment here that what I see in this group’s denunciation of Islam as “the religion of the devil” and the Qur’an as an evil book that should be burned, is an extreme example of the worst kind of ethnocentrism, that in which a group, believing themselves to be rightly following God, takes into their hands the prerogative (which I believe the Bible teaches belongs to God alone) of judging and condemning others. This certainly seems contrary to Jesus’ exhortation to “love your neighbor as yourself” (how would they respond to Muslims burning the Bible or the Cross?); and Jesus even said, beyond that, that his followers should “love your enemies.”

It is "natural" for people to protect their own group and fight against all others. Religious wars are one example of this, and are a blight on human history. Jesus, however, calls his followers to rise above parochialism and ethnocentrism, above defining and defending our own in-group, to a life of loving the different other as oneself (witness that the example he gave, in his famous parable, was of the despised other – the Samaritan – proving to be the loving neighbor to the injured Jew). And it seems logical to assume that loving one’s neighbor (or even one’s enemy, which Jesus also commanded) would not manifest itself in trashing the neighbor’s religion or burning their holy book.

To be or not to be "Christian"

There is an interesting article by Brian McLaren (author of “A Generous Orthodoxy” and “A New Kind of Christian” and several other books which I find to be fascinating studies in the relationship of faith and culture, or the living out of the life of faith “in context”), on novelist Anne Rice’s decision to “quit Christianity” (see

I would like to add another perspective both on Rice’s decision and on McLaren’s comments on that decision. (I would recommend the article for the full details of McLaren’s discussion.)

From an anthropological perspective, what Rice is reacting against is a parochial, ethnocentric, naturally human phenomenon of creating and protecting one’s group and boundaries – in this case, “Christian” and “Christianity” (however broadly or narrowly defined) – against those perceived to be outside of the group or the boundaries. She came to conclude that to be “Christian” means to be “anti-gay … anti-feminist … anti-artificial birth control … anti-Democrat … anti-secular humanism … anti-science … anti-life.”

I would comment that (a) that definition of “Christian” is one particular group’s definition, not by any means shared by all those around the world who go by the name “Christian”, and that (b) were we to explore the roots of those various beliefs, we would find a mix of Biblical texts / values / principles and cultural interpretations (which would also differ from the interpretations of other groups of “Christians” at different times and places). In other words, there would not be agreement, through time or around the world, that to be “Christian” is to be all of these things. And I would argue, as a person within the broad category of “Christian,” that on several of these points, those arguing that to be true to Jesus is to be these things which Rice feels that she cannot be, are simply wrong – wrong, that is, in arguing that these beliefs are indisputably “biblical,” divine, of God, universal. The human and the divine, in this case (as in many others), have gotten mixed up, in ways that are not relevant to all people in all contexts.

And what Rice is doing, in trying to emphasize attachment to Jesus rather than his followers or what they consider to be “Christianity,” is trying to separate the human and relative and changing from the divine and absolute and universal.

Her reasoning, and McLaren’s in response to her decision, is reasoning that I share. As someone who wants to know and be true to God, through following and living by the teachings of Jesus, I am concerned not to bind up that which is human, connected specifically to a particular group of people or time and place, with my faith. Someone may be a follower of Jesus and (happen to) be anti-Democrat or anti-secular humanism, but those beliefs are not necessarily dictated by Jesus, and other followers of Jesus may have different perspectives on those (and other) matters.

(On the side from this conversation, one of the reasons that I value multicultural “Christian” community and settings another topic, is that we gain insight, through comparing similarities and differences, into what is shared and perhaps absolute, and what is human and culture-bound.)

I would add, further, that “Christianity” is a human religious construction. It has some (perhaps much, in some cases) of Jesus and his teachings wrapped up in it, but also much that is human and cultural. I do not see “Christianity” in the Bible or in the teachings of Jesus, and do not think it helps us to talk about people “converting to Christianity” or “believing in Christianity.” We convert to and believe in and live in relationship with Jesus, not the broad complex of religious ordinances and principles and regulations and rituals and practices, etc., which have come to be known as “Christianity.”

I agree with McLaren that “there’s no escaping the human condition,” with our fallenness and failings. I also agree with him that all religion – which I understand as the complex of rituals and practices, etc., that people have constructed, as they attempt to seek and honor God – is failed (at least, in the sense that all religions have failed to truly change or reform people through an emphasis on external practices and controls, and in the sense that all religious groups have failed to love their neighbor as themselves, to live according to God’s highest ideals for human relationships). And I appreciate his “redefining Christianity” so that it doesn’t mean that he feels superior to anyone by being a “Christian.” (I think he’s onto something in talking about the “Kingdom of God” – a concept which Jesus talked about nonstop – rather than “Christianity.”) His thoughts remind me of what the Korean-American pastor Jin Kim of the Church of All Nations ( calls being “penitently Presbyterian” (or “Christian”) – i.e., accepting one’s background and rootedness, but not being triumphalist, acting as if that way of being “Christian” (or human) is better than that of other groups.

If more of us who go by the name “Christian” were “penitently” Christian (and beyond that, focused more on being true to Jesus, and less on establishing and defending our brand of “Christianity”), perhaps fewer people would feel the need to distance themselves from us. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter so much whether people are distancing themselves from “Christianity,” as whether they are drawing closer to Jesus. The greatest tragedy, I think, is when “Christians” have the effect of pushing people away from Jesus.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

First Thoughts: the intersection of the Divine & the Human

From some point in my youth, I have been interested in the life of faith. Both of my parents, and most of the people in my extended family, were what we called "believers," or "committed Christians" - i.e., people who take God, the Bible, and their relationship with Jesus, seriously; people who are seeking to grow in faith and in living out what they believe; people who believe that faith is not about religion or being religious, but about a new way of life, about life-changing relationship with God through Jesus. This is what was modeled to me, as I was growing up, of what I would call "the life of faith," or “being ‘Christian’”; and at some point, I was drawn to this life of faith - I saw something positive, something I wanted, and I began to seek to “know God,” to work things through for myself, to make it "personal." I remember this as an ongoing and deepening process through my teen years, intensifying as I attended a Christian liberal arts college.

Freshman year, the faith-pursuing, God-pursuing trajectory of my life intersected another reality (or is it a dimension of or perspective on reality?): Anthropology. In an "Introduction to the Liberal Arts" class, I had an Anthropologist for a professor. I didn't know what Anthropology was, but the prof was fascinating, and I decided to take an Intro to Anthro course from him spring semester. One class was all it took to hook me on Anthro, and it became my major. I was fascinated by culture and cultural difference, or at least, what I read of it - I had grown up, and was still living, in a strongly monocultural setting, and had little if any actual experience of culture or cultural difference (I had my own culture, obviously, but when that's all you have, you are not aware of it, and being "ethnocentric" virtually means having no experience of culture).

Since college, then, I have simultaneously been pursuing growth in faith and growth in understanding of culture, and I might say that the two (faith and culture) provide my two key grids (or two dimensions of one grid) for understanding life. At least, I perceive my life in these terms.

From my point of view, each of these dimensions and perspectives strengthens and deepens the other. To me, God is real, Jesus is living, my faith in him and relationship with him is not about believing in something that does not exist (as some anthropologists and other social scientists seem to imply about religious faith), but is part of the reality of life (perhaps it is like a dimension of life, as when you move from reality which is 2-dimensional to that which is 3-d, or when you add a 4th dimension to 3-d reality).

I remember Ninian Smart saying that "a science must correspond to its objects" - i.e., if you are studying people of faith, you have to deal with the faith dimension of their life, and with what they have faith in (W. Cantwell Smith also makes this point, in his writings). More on that another time. For now, suffice it to say that my faith has informed, challenged, enabled, and strengthened my anthropology, especially as I have sought to understand the faith of others (primarily Muslims, during my years of pilgrimage in the Arab world).

On the other hand, my anthropology - my learning about culture, becoming more culturally self-aware, gaining insight into all the ways in which to be human is to be cultural, to be culture-bound, to live in a cultural context, etc. - has had an immeasurable impact on my faith. Anthropology has given me concepts for understanding the relationship between faith and culture, enabling me to explore the possibilities of being a person of faith but growing in freedom from captivity to the ethnocentrism which is so destructive to human relationships, and which causes problems both between people of the same religious tradition and - especially, more easily - between people of different religious traditions.

All of this will be expanded in posts to come. For now, let me say this: for me as a person of faith who takes the concept of culture seriously, life is about the intersection of the divine and the human. The divine, of course, refers to God. People of faith believe that he exists, that he is above and beyond the human, in some way outside of (not bound by) space and time. He is eternal, the creator, the life-giver. God has the big picture, we could say, the comprehensive perspective on life, the whole and accurate "worldview" (did you ever think of God having a worldview?). People, on the other hand, are limited by time and space and in every other way, and live in human contexts which are defined historically, religiously, socioculturally, politically, etc. We are dependent. We are finite. We see some things, know some things, but never see or know everything (or anywhere close to it, though in our ethnocentrism we sometimes believe we know it all). In the words of the Apostle Paul, we "see through a glass darkly." Or in the terms of the ancient proverb of the blind men and the elephant, we each only get a feel for part of the "elephant" (which you can take to represent life, or God, or any particular aspect of life or the world).

The life of faith is about the intersection of the divine and the human. The pinnacle of this, for me, is in what Christians refer to as the "Incarnation" - the coming into the human context of Jesus the "word of God," about whom the Gospel of John says that he was in the beginning with God, and that he was God, and that through him all things came into being. The word of God, in Biblical terms, is divine, and yet "became flesh and dwelt among us" - i.e., entered into a specific human context (that of 1st Century Palestine), and fully lived in that human context for more than 30 years.

It is striking, I think, that God chose to limit himself to working with and within the human context. The New Testament says that Jesus "emptied himself," "made himself nothing," "taking the very nature of a servant, being found in human likeness." He was, you could say, "culture bound." He grew up Jewish. He spoke the language of the people around him. He had a human family. And yet, God was able to work in this way to manifest his life and to carry out his purposes. In the Incarnation, we see that God works in and through the human context, through culture. And that he is able to be understood, and known, within human contexts, through human language, etc.

One of the challenges facing people of faith - who believe that they have come to know God (or at least, are in the process of growing to know him), and who are concerned with the perspectives and the ways of God - is to understand that this presence of God is known, experienced, interacted with, in a human context. One of our problems, rooted in our natural ethnocentrism, is that we tend to deify our own culture; another, related to that, is that we tend to denigrate the culture of others. Because we are dealing with the things of God, and because we are ethnocentric, aware neither of our own culture nor of the culture of others, what is of God and what is of our own cultural context gets mixed up, and we assume that everything we do is from God and reflects his truth and his ways. And then when we meet others who have different understanding, vision, practices, we naturally assume that they are wrong, have a wrong understanding of God, etc. In my experience, maturity as a person of faith in a diverse world is at least partly a process of growing in cultural self-awareness, working at separating what is human (i.e., cultural) in my faith and practice, from what is essential, clearly of God. This process is one of the things which I will be discussing in this blog.


I’m writing this blog for myself, mainly, to reflect on a range of questions and issues related to the broad topic of “faith and culture.” I write as a trained Anthropologist, and as a person of faith (you could call me a “Christian,” though for the most part I prefer the label “follower of Jesus”). I write out of my own experience and faith, naturally, but I hope that my reflections might be of some value to other people who are interested in faith, culture, and the relationship between them – whether you are a person of faith or not, and whatever your faith may be. I am particularly interested – given my years of living in relationship with Muslims – in whether Muslims will find helpful and relevant the concepts I discuss. I welcome feedback, input, and discussion. I hope that all interaction on this site, whether or not we agree, will be with the respect due to others who are created as fellow human beings, in the image of God.