A place to Overwhelm the Senses
Recently I was in India. So much of what I saw in the many places I visited continually brought one word to mind—hard. India is a hard place. The press of humanity in Chandni Chowk; the traffic so dense that it always seemed like every three lane road had six lanes of vehicles; smog so thick you could almost feel it; poverty that really is like what you saw in Slumdog Millionaire. If you dare take the adventure, Katherine Boo’s remarkable book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers,1 will give you a stunning look at the hardness of life in India through the lens of one Mumbai slum.
Don’t misunderstand. Like a small flower that pops its head through a crack in the cement, there is still a wonderful vibrancy that can be seen and felt everywhere you go. There are still colors and smells and sights that delight the senses. Moghul architecture, flower and spice markets, the bicycle rickshaw drivers who seem willing to do almost anything to get you to buy a ride to wherever it is you’re going. And yes, the food is to die for.
But even with all that, there is still the hardness. May I suggest that the worst hardness, the hardness that breaks your heart, is the spiritual hardness? Religious devotion seemed present everywhere yet it was fueled by a raw idolatry that was difficult to witness. There were the small roadside Buddhist temples in the foothills of the Himalayas; neighborhood shrines to Kali in Kolkata. Thousands were taking a ritual bath in the Ganges at Haridwar to cleanse them of their sins and free themselves from the cycle of rebirth. At the temple of Mansa Devi high atop Bila Parwat, men and women were urged by priests to place their offerings in the fire quickly so that the press of people behind them in line might do the same. Naked or nearly-naked sadhus covered in ashes who have renounced all material attachments were a startling sight. Of course, there are the Sikh men with their turbans that seem to be everywhere. Lastly there was the Jain temple we stumbled onto in Old Delhi. To breathe in India is to inhale religion. But the religious air is toxic.
Response to Hardness: Love
How do we respond to such things? How do we go the distance love requires in the face of such hardness? First, we don’t respond with pity and condescension. Children of the king respond with love and compassion. Like Abraham, we were idolaters now freed to love and worship the living God by a grace rooted in God’s sovereign goodness toward us in Jesus. Indeed, if our earlier consideration of Romans 1 is true, then even as followers of Jesus we still struggle with the problem of pushing God out of our conscious awareness and replacing the knowledge of God with lies and idols. Beggars dare not look down their nose at other beggars. Grace makes us beggars who can show other beggars where the bread is found. A friend reminds me that we have little idol shrines in our neighborhoods just like the residents of Kolkata. They’re called ATMs. Aren’t our malls as much places of idolatry and spiritual darkness and bondage as any Hindu mandir or Sikh gudwara? Our god may be consumption rather than Krishna but it’s false worship just the same.
Some in our culture are tempted to charge us with arrogance as we presume, in the face of spiritual darkness, to tell others about Jesus. We do tell them that Jesus is not simply a way but the way to the life and freedom found in relationship with the Triune God. But to insist that such truth telling is rooted in arrogance is to misunderstand us. Whether the hardness around us has Western or Eastern roots, is across the world or in the next cubicle, the love of Christ for us (not simply our love for Christ) compels us to announce good news in His name.
Response to Hardness: Witness to Christ
Second, we ground our response to the spiritual hardness we see in our calling. Our postmodern friend might listen at least respectfully, though not eagerly, if we were simply to claim Jesus is one way, our way. A Hindu friend might even listen eagerly if we said that Jesus is only one, perhaps even the greatest of all great souls that have lived in the world. Both friends might ask us, “Why can’t you leave it at that?” Lesslie Newbigin reminds us that we can’t simply leave it at that because God has called us to bear witness to the crucified, risen Jesus of Nazareth and so bear witness we must.
In the end, the only answer we have to give to the question is along lines such as these: ‘I have been called and commissioned, through no merit of my own, to carry this message, to tell this story, to give this invitation. It is not my story or my invitation. It has no coercive intent. It is an invitation from the one who loved and gave himself up for you…we have to live and tell the story faithfully; the rest is in God’s hands. What matters is not that I should succeed but that God should be honored.’2
Response to Hardness: Faith Rekindled
Third, and most importantly, we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus “the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2, 3). The Scottish pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne used to say for every one look at yourself, take ten looks at Jesus. That’s amazingly good advice and if you haven’t done so yet, begin now to practice it. However, for our purposes, let me tweak the phrase a bit and say that for every look at the spiritual hardness around you, take ten looks at Jesus. The answer to the challenge of mission isn’t to stare at the hardness but to be fascinated by the risen, ruling Christ whose joy it is to bring salvation to the nations. He has paid the price to guarantee that the Father’s redemptive purpose for a runaway planet will be accomplished.
Too often we think that we can manage our way out of any situation. No task is too great, no challenge too big that good ol’ American optimism and know-how can’t handle. Our grand mission schemes and strategies betray how deeply we drink from the well of American pragmatism. I recall being at a meeting in the mid-90’s at which someone from the AD 2000 movement was speaking. “There are thousands of people groups yet to be reached with the gospel but we can reach them by the year 2000 because we have this” and he help up in his hand a copy of the Jesus video. Do we really think that the kingdom of darkness will cower and yield to a VHS cassette? “We’d better cash it in guys,” says the Evil One, “they’ve got a pretty cool video.”
Fixing our eyes on Jesus in the face of the hardness we see will drive us, first, not to rolling up our sleeves to get to work but to our knees to seek from our ascended King the in-breaking of His saving rule over the nations. Only Jesus, to whom all authority in heaven and earth is given, has the power to overcome all His and our enemies. What’s more, keeping our eyes on Jesus reminds us of the shape of the mission. It is the risen Lord who points to His hands and side and says, “Now, as the Father sent me, so I send you.” We address the hardness of a world in bondage to decay (Rom. 8:21) through suffering love. We share in Christ’s suffering for the world that we may also share in His glory—the glory of a world made new over which the King of Glory rules by His love and grace.
1Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. New York: Random House, 2012.
2Truth and Authority in Modernity (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1996), 82, 83 and Living Hope in a Changing World (London: Alpha International, 2003), 91.
Are you involved in the missions of your church? If not, why not do so by going on a short-term trip, either to your own city or overseas?
For a short article on William Carey, the founder of the modern mission movement to India, see “William Carey” in the Colson Center Library. Or you can purchase from the Online Store N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:8
[English teachers tend to have a passion for both words and stories—a passion grounded in our being made in the image of a God who is both wordsmith and storyteller. In Part 1, I explored our God-given passion for words; in Part 2, I explore our God-given passion for stories.]
While I agree that there are many fictional books which are not worth the paper they’re printed on, I’m saddened when I hear such statements. For God—the ultimate storyteller—formed our soul in such a way that we both respond to stories we read, and take pleasure in creating them. Therefore, people who refuse to pick up a novel, go to a play, or watch a movie are missing out on opportunities to edify and enrich their lives.
Over the years, I’ve heard many people make comments like these: “I don’t read stories. They’re a waste of time.” … “Stories are just make-believe, and I don’t want to read a bunch of lies.” … “Stories are just escapist entertainment. I’d rather live in reality.”
“And God said …” (Genesis 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 29)
This is the first in a two-part series on how my faith in Christ impacts my profession.
The Ultimate Wordsmith
Recently, I was asked to speak to a group of students who are members of CRU (Campus Crusade for Christ) at the university where I teach. Specifically, I was asked to address the question of how my faith informs what I do as an educator. In light of this request, I told them that English teachers tend to have two great passions—a passion for words and a passion for stories—both of which, I believe, arise from how God hard-wired us when He created us in His image. Simply put, the reason why humans (some of us, admittedly, more than others) love words and stories is because God—the ultimate wordsmith and storyteller—made us this way.
When it comes to our love for words, many English teachers could rightly be accused of living with our nose in a dictionary or thesaurus. We love to find just the right word, then put it together with other words to form well-crafted sentences, which we then link together into coherent paragraphs—all with a particular end in sight: to create a document which clearly, perhaps even elegantly, communicates a worthwhile message to its readers.
The Same or Different?
Figuring out the uniqueness of Christian faith can sometimes be a challenge. Perhaps a friend who is Muslim says to you, “How can I be a good Muslim and not love Jesus?”1 If he accepts Jesus, why isn’t he a Christian? Then there is the Buddhist co-worker who reminds you that the problem of existence is that all of life is marked by suffering and that we do not find ultimate happiness or satisfaction in anything we experience. How come he sounds so much like the book of Ecclesiastes? What about the ardent atheist in your dorm who rejects all notions of transcendence yet seems to thunder about moral law in a way Moses might have admired? Where does this passionate moralism come from, given he’s sawed off the legs of anything that would support it? There may not be many Marxists left, but historically Marxism has been committed to a vision of a future new world order of justice and righteousness where everything is finally put right. Were they all channeling N.T. Wright! How did that happen?
Typically, our way of dealing with the question of other religious traditions is to use categories of light and darkness, truth and lies. We bring light, all others deal in darkness; we announce truth, the rest is all lies. In an ultimate sense these binary categories are true. At the end of the day, there is no gospel in Islam. When all is said and done, neither Buddhism nor Hinduism is the way to life everlasting. It is true that Satan’s kingdom is a kingdom of darkness and he is the father of lies (Col. 1:13; Jn. 8:44).
A Missional Lens?
However, is it necessary to nuance this for both biblical reasons as well as missional reasons? In the traditional account of the origin of the Qur’an, Muhammad was outside Mecca in the cave of Mount Hira when the angel Gabriel appeared to him and said, “Recite!” “What shall I recite?” the Muhammad replied. Again, the angel commanded, “Recite, O Muhammad.” Yet a third time, Gabriel demanded, "Recite in the Name of Your Lord Who created. He created the human being from a clot. Recite and your Lord is Most Honorable, Who taught (to write) with the pen, taught the human being what he knew not..."2 And so, the first revelation was given, the first of many over a period of about 23 years. It is these many revelations that together comprise the Qur’an.3
Many Christians, reflecting on this story, have interpreted it as a story, not of angelic visitation, but of demonic possession. While it may be argued such a take can’t be ruled out altogether, does the apostle Paul point us in a different direction in Romans 1:18 – 25 that might prove more theologically insightful and missionally helpful? As we noted in the second article in this series, God has so clearly revealed Himself in conscience and nature that the human race is without excuse. This revelation is active and constant with respect to every human being with the result that we are without excuse with regard to the knowledge of God. He has made who He is plain to all (v. 18-21).
Man Engaged with God
But that’s not the end of the story. Recall, if you will, Bavinck’s definition of religion, “Religion is our response to God. It is our response to God’s revelation of Himself in creation and conscience. And it is the response of the whole person. It is the response of everything we are. In Biblical terms, it is the response of the heart.” There is God’s revelation and then mankind’s response. There is always a response and, apart from God’s grace in Christ revealed in the gospel and given through the Spirit, our response, Paul says, will be one of rebellion (v. 21, 24), repression (vv, 18b, 25a), and replacement (vv. 22, 23, 25b).4
In other words, man is not neutral toward God. Apart from the saving work of Christ, we are rebels, covenant-breakers. Made for God, we declare Him our chief enemy and seek to banish Him from our conscious awareness. However, what we have sought to repress from our awareness cannot be fully hidden away. Like the beach ball we try to hold down under the water, what we “can’t not know” always seeks to resurface – and does! In the form of idols – imitation gods, substitute gods.
Street Level Relevance
Second, what a great encouragement this approach to Romans 1 provides in understanding our role in evangelism. We don’t initiate a conversation about God with anyone! God is already in conversation with everyone! Graciously, he calls us to take those conversations to a new level as we bring the good news of the God who has revealed Himself in the Lord Jesus Christ, the savior of the world. Coming along side our neighbors in humility, aware of our own ongoing struggle to resist the heart dynamic the Apostle Paul describes, we bring the Word that alone has the power through the Holy Spirit to bring the ever turning gears of repression and replacement to a grinding halt.
So, you may ask, what does that help us explain or understand? Well, a couple things at least. First, it helps us understand the formal (and sometimes more substantive) similarities that exist between Christian faith and other faiths. Is it possible that the emergence of a radical monotheism in a cave outside of Mecca in the context of a deep-seated polytheism – was not because Muhammad was demon-possessed but because he was wrestling with God? Is it possible that the great religions of history are humankind’s response to God’s revelation? This is what the process of repression and replacement looks like as it flows from the depth of human existence, as it emerges from the human heart. With reference to Romans 1, Bavinck reminds us, “God concerns Himself with every man. Buddha would never have meditated on the way of salvation had God not touched him. Muhammad would never have uttered his prophetic witness if God had not concerned Himself with him. Every religion contains, somehow, the silent work of God.”5 And yet the tragedy of our sinful condition is that we suppress this silent work and replace God’s revelation with idolatrous substitutes.
1Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet of God who is virgin born and they anticipate his second coming. However, they also reject traditional Christian teaching with respect to Jesus Christ as the Eternal Son incarnate in history, his death on the cross, and, therefore, his resurrection. According to Islam, Jesus did not die but was assumed bodily into heaven.
3I trust the reader understands that I am describing the Qur’an and its origin as a Muslim would.
4For a much fuller and extended treatment of Romans 1:18-25, see Bavinck, ch. 5, “The Impact of Christianity on the non-Christian World” in The Christian Faith and the Non-Christian Religions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948); Part II, ch. 1,“The Nature, Place and Task of Elenctics” in An Introduction to the Science of Missions (Philadelphia: P&R Publishing, 1960); ch. 9, “Human Religion in God’s Sight” in The Church Between Temple and Mosque: The Study of the Relationship Between the Christian Faith and Other Religions ( Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1981).
5The Church Between Temple and Mosque, 200.
Do you agree or disagree with Bob’s assessment of other religions, i.e. that while they’re wrong they aren’t necessarily demonic? Does your assessment of these religions square with what Paul teaches in Romans 1:18ff?
For an article that will help you articulate the uniqueness of Christ, download “Why Jesus Is the Way” from the Colson Center Library. Or from the Online Store, you can purchase this book for a study on the various religions of the world: Comparing Christianity with World Religions.
What makes me different from my Muslim neighbor, or you different from your Buddhist co-worker? We might be tempted to look at certain kinds of external differences. Yet, go to a Pakistani restaurant one night for dinner and then a Middle Eastern restaurant the next, each run by a different Muslim family, and you’ll quickly learn there is no distinctive Muslim cuisine. Compare how a Muslim man from Turkey and a Muslim man from India dress and you’ll discover that there is no uniform Muslim dress code. On this basic level, two Muslims might be as different in many ways from one another as each is different from you or me. And it gets more complicated yet. Let’s consider some broader cultural categories. Christian England and Muslim Saudi Arabia are both monarchies. Hindu India and Christian America are both democracies. Japan, with its Buddhist and Shinto roots, and France, with Christian roots, are both part of the G7 family of industrialized nations despite such different religious histories. Cultural differences and similarities are probably not the best way to understand the religious differences that exist between friends and neighbors.
…[They] have misled my people, saying, 'Peace,' when there is no peace…. Ezekiel 13:10a
A Box Office Hit
The Clint Eastwood film American Sniper broke box office records in its opening weekend, and simultaneously lit a firestorm of controversy over the story of America’s most lethal sniper, Chris Kyle. Was Kyle a hero, as his friends, family, and supporters claim? Or was he a psychotic murderer and coward, as his critics claim?
My husband and I were one of millions who packed into their local theater opening weekend to watch this film. And, except for when I attended a screening of Schindler’s List, I have never sat among so many people who were so utterly still and silent—from the moment the movie started, until after they had walked out of the theater. From what I’ve read, that response has been nearly universal; I saw only one post where the writer said the audience at his screening erupted in applause after the closing credits.
Why such reverence? Because despite those who want to turn American Sniper into a commentary on the validity of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan (it’s not), or despite those who claim it’s nothing more than a piece of propaganda celebrating American jingoism (it’s not), Eastwood’s film tells a far simpler tale—one that is resonating in the souls of viewers. It’s the story of the toll war takes upon the men who fight it and upon the families they leave behind. These men do not start wars or make policy; they just go and do their job.