Monday, April 18, 2005

Baptist Multiculturalism

I'm paying more attention to Christian colleges now that my daughter is graduating from High School. And one of the things I'm finding annoying with various Christian colleges is their newfound interest in "diversity." This got me to thinking about the Christian's roll in all this diversity folerol. (If there's no difference between a Christian college and MSU, I can save a ton of money on tuition.)

Adding context to my musings is my having recently read The Wisdom of Crowds. I've always believed that groupthink is a bad things. I think it's wise to think outside the box. And I encourage folks to take the blinders off. If you limit your perspective to a single eye-point, there's a lot of reality that you'll never see. The Christian has a commitment to truth and this requires him to make himself aware of those bits that are not directly in view.

Christianity started out with a bunch of Jewish fishermen in the ancient Middle East. Those guys weren't at all like me in terms of education, culture, and socio-economic class. Moreover, Christianity has found expression in all manner of different soils. You've got Christians in the third world, Eastern Europe, and the Far East. If you think I left out someplace, good, you're making my point. Christianity has been contexualized to several diverse cultures around the world and across two millenia.

The Christian needs to recognize that the world is filled with brothers and neighbors. Our brothers share a faith in Christ, and our neighbors need Christ. Christians are well advised to aggregate the diverse perspectives of our brothers. The more diverse their perspectives the better. Christ is imaged in all sorts of people who build communities of faith in all sorts of ways. If diversity consists of aggregations of other Christian communities perspectives, there's no question this is a Good Thing.

The question arises when we consider our neighbors and their perspectives? The Bible tells us that before he was the king of Israel, David lived among the Philistines and at that time, he picked up steel-making technology. Before that, there were no blacksmiths in Israel. After that, Israel knew how to forge steel weapons. This coincided with the ascendency of Israel as a regional power. Here, David demonstrates that aggregating the diverse perspective of the pagan Philistines proved most beneficial.

On the other hand, there are other bits of our neighbors' culture about which we really want to say "no thank you." The Bible describes the Canaanite culture as being depraved and singled out for destruction by God who gave their land to Israel. (And later removed the Israelites when their culture proved depraved, too.)

When the Christian encounters his neighbor with a different perspective, he has to evaluate that culture against the standard of the Bible. The pagan Canaanites saw no problem with infant sacrifices in a furnace-like idol of Molech. The Bible and common sense makes it clear that such behaviour is depraved.

Multiculturalism makes no moral judgements about different cultures, indicating rightness or wrongness is only meaningful within the context of that culture. Christianity contradicts that, saying that there's a God who stands outside all cultures and judges them according to the standard of his own character. God establishes a moral standard and judges us individually and corporately. The Christian has God's revelation in the Bible and in his own moral character that we can use to evaluate the morality of different cultures. There is a difference if a culture teaches that one should love one's neighbor--instead of eating one's neighbor.

Thus, the Christian when aggregating the diverse viewpoints of his neighbors, needs to filter those perspectives through the moral filter of the Bible. Like King David, we need to pick up those bits of truth that God has given our neighbors and use them effectively. If our neighbors hold to unscriptural ethical systems, we need to reject them like Israel rejected the wickedness of the Canaanites.

This business of evaluating cultures extends beyond our neighbors to our brothers. Just because we have mercy in Christ does not mean God has repealed human fallibility. Israel's culture became corrupt and God took them out of the land and into captivity in Babylon. The Christian has to put his own culture under the moral microscope. But how can I know what MY culture is like. If you want to know about water, don't ask the fish. Somehow, my Christian, Evangelical culture has to be weighed against Scripture.

This is where my brothers who live in different times and places can help me. Their perspectives can show me my blind spots. But when was the last time you heard an American pay attention to reproof from an Eastern European Christian? This is a good argument for Ecumenism, not that we can compromise our beliefs, but that we can compare and contrast our position with those of our brothers. We should be quick to listen to our brothers' critique and I'm sure we'll have little problem reciprocating.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Shrinking Church Membership

John Derbyshire wrote a fairly depressing essay about the decline in membership within the Catholic church during the tenure of Pope John Paul II. Whereas others will blame Vatican II or traditionalist policies, Mr. Derbyshire blames the "irresistible appeal of secular hedonism to healthy, busy, well-educated populations."

I think he is on to something. However, I hope to show that there is more going on here that explains not just church membership decline, but church growth as well. Since I'm not Catholic, I will to what I've seen in Baptist circles and extrapolate to the Roman church.

Mr. Derbyshire rightly points out that people in America and Western Europe live comfortable, affluent lives. The gospel promise of a better world strains the imagination. Jesus spoke of the difficulty of getting a camel through the eye of a needle afterall. But the Brave New World is not Heaven and people feel something is missing despite all this affluence.

If I tell my neighbor that there's a heaven and a hell after this life and a God who judges us, then he will just be unable to engage those thoughts.

I believe the gospel needs to be translated into different terms. I'm not talking about tickling ears. We are alienated from God and death is separation from God and reconciliation and resurrection are found only in Christ. If you believe this is true, then this should be your message to your neighbors.

Many in Western Society see a tedious round of consumption and entertainment that doesn't really mean anything. Sure getting a high score on your X-Box is nice and getting a better plasma screen TV and upgrading your sofa to leather is nice, but so what. We're going thru the motions and why are we doing it why? "Why am I here?" is a question that's deeper than "Who am I?" or "What do I want?"

These questions, so hard for contemporary society cannot be answered from a man-centric framework. Christianity looks outside mankind for an external point of reference in the ultimate source of reality. The trouble is that we're alienated from that reference-point.

Alienation characterizes much of Western Society and people feel that alienation. We also see alienation in our relationships with other people. There's a lot of psychobabble out there and Christianity is not a form of psychotherapy. But Christianity tells us how to live, both individually and in relationship with other people. Church is a community of faith.

We have a cure to alienation that our neighbors ache for, even if they have a paid-off mortgage. My church stresses purpose, relationship and community. It's growing quickly.

Conversely, other churches see shrinking membership rolls and empty parking lots. These other churches aren't evil or lazy, but the shrinking membership makes them act crazy. Fervor, zeal without knowledge, does not suffice. Sincerity, misdirected, doesn't cut it. God expects us to use what he gives us. He gives us brains to figure this stuff out. He gives us the Great Commission and expects us to win folks to him. We don't do this if we don't understand what our neighbors feel.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

My Rick Warren Story

A couple years back I was in Barnes & Noble bookstore and I saw a display for The Purpose Driven Life. And I picked up a copy, having heard the last 10 seconds of an NPR interview with Rick Warren and I saw the "New York Times bestseller" on the cover. I only heard enough to figure it was some sort of self-help book on the order of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I'd liked Mr. Covey's book and figured this would be more of the same. I brought it home and put it on the stack of books I feel guilty about not reading that sits next to my bed.

Months went by and a girl from my high school church youth group recommended the book. This caused a raised eyebrow. That's a religious book? After high school, I went to Cedarville College which is a conservative Christian college and she had gone on to Calvin College which was--well--more liberal than Wheaton! (If you don't know what I mean, ask a Bob Jones graduate to explain.) I'd heard that she'd left the fundie Baptists (GARBC) that I identify with and joined an American Baptist Convention church and she is now a pastor's wife in an ABC church. (Ask your nearest Bob Jones graduate to explain what "going liberal" means.)

So, I picked up The Purpose-Driven Life. My first surprise was on the back cover. Zondervan published it. Wow, crypto-evangelical marketing. The book wasn't just a rah-rah boost your sales potential self-help book.

As I read it I went slowly nuts. The book did all sorts of things that offended my fundamentalist sensitivities. It quoted the Dali Lami and Gandi and all the pagans that the world cites as its moral sources. It played Bible version roulette and all the Bible references were exiled to afternotes in the back where it would be inconvenient to look up and check. I figured Mr. Warren was playing fast and loose with the Bible and was obviously liberal. Nevertheless, despite the packaging I found the content good and a sound presentation of gospel truth was clearly stated therein.

I thanked my high school friend for the recommendation and felt better that she hadn't gone so liberal that she'd abandoned the gospel. (More on American Baptist Evangelicals in another post.)

A couple months later I was preparing a Sunday school class on the subject of "Willow Creek" mega-churches and I picked up Rick Warren's book, The Purpose-Driven Church. I was expecting something completely different. Instead of telling church leaders how to tickle ears, Mr. Warren emphasized truth and no dilution of the gospel message. He talked about how to make church accessible to Joe Random Pagan (without such crudities as describing the seeker as a Pagan).

But what struck me about The Purpose-Driven Church was the language in which it was written. Instead of having all those goofball worldly wisemen cited as moral sources, he stuck to a single translation of the Bible and he put the references inline with the text when he supported each point with scripture. It dawned upon me that Rick Warren wrote the books in two different languages.

(No doubt, a thousand years from now higher critics will use this to substantiate a documentary hypothesis that there was no single Rick Warren, but that there were two guys writing under that name. If JEDP doesn't mean anything to you, this parenthetical won't, either.)

The book targeted to someone who may not be a lifetime Baptist was written using idioms and memes accessible to that audience. The book targeted to church leadership was written in a format they would find most accessible. In each case, the different audience takes different knowledge sources as credible, and the citations reflect that. I'm a lifetime Baptist, you can quote John Bunyan or the Apostle Paul, and I'll take it ask gospel (though I may ask for chapter and verse). I imagine some of my non-Baptist friends may not subscribe to verbal plenary inspiration of Scripture. Rick Warren finds voices that are credible to the audience and uses their words to support his case, just as the Apostle Paul cited Athenian poets when he preached on Mars Hill.

Then I read a link that an Episcopal friend sent me from this guy in Australia (Mike Frost)--a Baptist who talked about "contextualizing" the gospel to the local culture. Mr. Frost's thesis is that contemporary culture is so post-Christian that the gospel message needs to be translated into terms and memes that someone in the general culture can understand and accurately evaluate.

The lesson I took from this was that my communication strategy was akin to pre-Vatican II Catholicism's use of Latin. I had snickered at the oddness of a Latin Mass given to a non-Latin speaking audience, but I was doing the same thing speaking in this weird dialect known as Evangelical. My communication strategy was as incomperhensible to my non-Baptist friends as Latin.

That's when I drank the Purpose-Driven koolaid. I've changed churches and now attend one of those "Saddleback-style" megachurches where I can safely invite my non-Baptist friends, confident that what they hear on Sunday morning will be spoken in their language. I suppose my fundie friends think I've gone liberal.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Bug Tracking Systems

I write software. It is sometimes imperfect. I become aware of imperfections by issues that are opened (or reopened) in a Bug Tracking system.

There's a sense in which a software issue is like a crime and a sense in which it is like a disease. My two favorite television shows, Law and Order: Criminal Intent and House show the detective and doctor solving problems much like a software engineer diagnoses and fixes bugs. (Yes, it is better if bugs are "designed out" ahead of time, but that's another post.)

Bug Tracker issues should be "phenomenological" focusing upon the outward indications of incorrect behaviour of the system in question. However, similar phenomena can arise from diverse failure mechanisms.

For instance, one can have pock marks on one's skin from Chicken Pox or from Measels. Though the doctor would like it if both maladies received distinct bug tracker numbers, he can't count on that. As the fictional Dr. Gregory House would say, "Patients lie." He is unfair. Patients reflect phenomena and it is his job to see past phenomena to underlying failure mechanisms.

The challenge of a bug tracking system is to accurately track observed phenomena and root failure mechanisms. Bug Tracker does a good job of the former, when I'm smarter, I'll suggest something to address the latter. Perhaps the software engineer should look to the medical or the forensic communities for patterns to apply to this problem.