Our Problem: We Don’t See People Anymore

people“I see dead people” was the famous line from the movie The Sixth Sense. A young boy was sensitive enough to be able to see the unseen world of those who were no longer living.

We need a bit of that sensitivity today, not to see the dead, but to see the living. We look at people, and we see their race. We look at people and see their sexual orientation. We see their political views. We see their immigration status. We see their religion. We see their nationality. We see “them” or “us.”

And we don’t see human beings made in the image of God. We don’t see individuals that Jesus loved enough to die for.

That’s what’s wrong with the world.

The church, modernity, and time

Transforming Worldviews book coverUsing ideas from Paul Hiebert’s Transforming Worldviews, I looked last time at some general impacts that modernity had on the church.

One specific area that Hiebert focused on is the emphasis on law and order. In the U.S., this shows itself in our emphasis on punctuality. Hiebert notes:

The first influence is the emphasis on mechanistic order over interpersonal relationships. We see this in the emphasis on clock time over relational time. In the former, people must be “on time” according to the clock, because punctuality is most efficient in coordinating the activities of many people doing different jobs. In much of the world people live by relational time, which means they do their best to meet at a given time, but other, human-related activities may intervene and delay them. Although they may set out for church in good time, on the way they may meet a relative or a friend they have not seen for a long time. They cannot simply say hello and good-bye in a few minutes. It takes time to rebuild the relationship, and they will eventually get to the service, which is held every week. (Kindle location 3383)

I’m troubled by the obsession with time in many U.S. churches, especially as regards ending times for services. I much prefer event orientation, where the focus is on what is done, not how long it takes. I hate people saying that we don’t have time to do this or that during our service; we have the time, we just want to use it on our own leisure later.

Hiebert’s point about clock time and relational time is seen in a study that Richard Beck referred to the other day. In this 1973 study, the participants were seminarians who were assigned to preach a sermon on the Good Samaritan. When they arrived at the place they were supposed to speak, they were informed of a change in location. Some of them were told that they had plenty of time to arrive at the new location. Some were told that they should arrive promptly (moderate time pressure). Others were told that they would have to hurry or they would be late (high time pressure).

Along the way, they passed someone who was in obvious physical distress (who was actually an accomplice of the researchers). As Beck tells it:

So who stopped to help? Those on their way to preach a sermon about the Good Samaritan? Or those who had the time to help?

Overall, the results of the study revealed that the biggest factor in helping was having the time. The relevant statistic from the study was (% who stopped):

The Low Hurry Condition: 63% offered aid
The High Hurry Condition: 10% offered aid

And, incidentally, some seminarians in the high hurry condition literally stepped over the groaning person on the way to deliver their sermon on the Good Samaritan.

What was the biggest factor that determined whether or not seminarians would show compassion? Time.

Believing in the unseen

Transforming Worldviews book coverI’ve been looking over some of my notes from when I read Paul Hiebert’s Transforming Worldviews. It’s an excellent book about culture and how it affects our outreach to the world. Might be a bit academic if you don’t spend a lot of time with the subject, but an amazing work overall. Hiebert was a pioneer in the field of missionary anthropology; in fact, you could argue that before him there was no such field of study.

One concept that jumped out at me this week was the idea that literate societies emphasize sight over the other senses while other cultures almost universally favor hearing. Because of this, literate societies have trouble believing in what they can’t see, much more trouble than non-literate societies have.

Not an earth-shattering idea, I guess, but it made me think. I have to feel that this is one big reason the modern world has trouble accepting the claims of the Bible.

Culture: The Uninvited Guest

Three_wise_monkeys_figureWe’ve been talking about Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience as they speak to us about religious matters. They form part of what is come to be known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. But as David noted last week, there’s another voice that speaks loudly as we discuss spiritual things: Culture.

If Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience are we voices that we accept and choose to listen to, Culture is all too often the uninvited guest. I’ve come to believe that when someone says, “Culture has nothing to do with this discussion,” that’s when Culture is playing its biggest role. Its influence is most effective when it goes unseen and unnoticed. Culture thrives on denial.

The hot topic at my home congregation is the role of women in worship. Everyone wants to claim that culture has nothing to do with their viewpoint. And that’s a big part of the problem. Let me explain:

  • Culture is a big part of the Bible. The Bible was revealed in cultural contexts, across many years. It was written in human language, not divine language. It addressed people living in a cultural context and expressed itself in ways they could understand. The New Testament letters, especially, were occasional documents, written to address a specific situation. That situation almost always had something to do with culture: misunderstandings of doctrine due to culture, churches following cultural practices, churches deciding how to resist cultural practices. Then add to the fact that we read the Bible in a translation in the language of our culture!
  • Some of the instructions about women were specifically tied to cultural things. The discussion of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 is an obvious example.
  • Those of us who read the Bible read in terms of our culture. When we read “church,” we think of a group of people that gather in a large auditorium, even though such things almost certainly didn’t exist when the Bible was written. We read “preach” and think of a man standing before an audience. We read “Scripture” and think of the bound Bibles that we hold in our hands.
  • The traditional view of the role of women is full of cultural influences. We’ve made standing in front of the assembled church, such as standing to pass communion trays, a sign of leadership. We’ve created, please note, we’ve created a Sunday assembly where there are song leaders, communion leaders, prayer leaders, and preachers. That’s not straight out of the pages of the Bible. That grew up out of culture.
  • The move toward an egalitarian stance has been heavily influenced by culture. Had there been no shift in the view of women in our culture, these discussions would not be taking place. It’s silly to deny that. I wouldn’t argue that the influence has been greater nor lesser than that on the traditional side; both sides have gotten where they’ve gotten with the aid of culture.

That’s just one example. The same happens with almost every Bible discussion. The question isn’t whether or not Culture will influence. The question is to what degree we will recognize and try to temper that influence. We don’t want to be led or controlled by Culture. But we do want to take a message from thousands of years ago and apply it to our current cultural situation.

Maybe Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience can lend us a hand.

A Yoke Around My Neck

tiesThey say that neckties are making a comeback. Too bad, I say. I’m not a fan.

I especially don’t like the way ties have been used in churches in developing nations. In many countries, the tie is seen as a symbol of Christianity. Schools of preaching require their students to wear ties, some of whom return to their home congregation, trying to impose the fashion there. In countries where neckties are virtually unknown, you see preachers wearing ties (often in garish colors that in no way match the clothes they wear). In Argentina, if you saw someone wearing a tie walking down the street on Sunday, you had almost certainly found an evangelical.

On Islamic websites, posters ask if the tie is meant to be a symbol of the cross, or if the imposition of ties in business settings isn’t an attempt to proselytize. One reporter who was held captive by the Taliban told of being questioned on several occasions as to what magic Christians saw in neckties.

Wear your ties, if you like. Just don’t mix fashions and faith… neither here nor overseas.

Finally, during some Bible study yesterday, I discovered that neckties are criticized in the New Testament! Note this from the book of Acts:

“Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10)

There you have it. Why put on the necks of the disciples a yoke that others have not been able to bear? That settles it. No neckties.

(OK, maybe I’m not totally serious on that one…)

Photo by Jane M. Sawyer via MorgueFile.com