Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Inaguration

Last night I watched the inauguration for almost 3 hours, and it was a lot of fun. There were 12 of us all crammed into Shadrack and Alpheus's living room watching it, mostly singles, and they were asking me all these questions about what was going on, the layout of the capital, and so on, so I described it to them. Its kind of weird to be around people in a foreign country who are as interested in my politics as I am, some almost more so, but nice. I'm really glad I was here for so many important milestones of the election, for the last part of the race and the results and then the inauguration.

I thought it was pretty solid. I thought Rick Warren's prayer was good, and the speech seemed very somber but it was appropriate. Still pretty ambitious, that's for sure. They had some trouble with the oath, it seems that both of them mixed up the word order, which I thought kind of funny. Now I can guarantee you that if Bush had any connection with that mess-up there would be no end of columns decrying his stupidity and speech impediment.

Several of the guys I was watching it with, one guy from Sudan in particular, were really sad to see Bush go. They were like, he's my man, and he's a real leader, made the hard choices and stuck by them, and it won't be the same without him. When discussing it today, a few people said they were surprised that Bush didn't give a speech.

In the middle of the lady reading poetry, they switched to the national convention center in Nairobi, and they were slicing up and handing out this big cake, and it was so funny. None of them cared about the poetry, they were like he's signed in, lets party.

Overall, it was a really good feeling, very uplifting, both watching it, and especially seeing with all my friends here. Now we get to see what actually happens.

Sweatshops: Good or Bad?

Probably for most this question would not be very difficult. However, I recently found an article that presents a different side of the story.

My friend Peter pointed out his fascinating bio:

After reading The World is Flat, by Friedman, I've always felt that the globalization debate was more complicated than most make it out to be. I've always heard Walmart and other demonized for enslaving so many in their factories, but reading about how desperate the factories (and those working in the factories) were to land a position on the Walmart supply chain presented quite a different picture.

Kristof is basically arguing that sweatshops are often better than the alternative, the example he gives being a garbage dump. For too many the choice is between a sweatshop and ... nothing. So what should we do about that? He argues that merely shutting down sweatshops without providing an alternative source of income is not helpful. And in many ways I have to agree. Fair trade is such a difficult issue. Something to consider.

Friday, January 16, 2009


Before I came to NEGST, I looked through the description of all the classes they offered, and three classes especially stood out: power encounter, contextualization, and introduction to urban mission. As I looked through the classes offered during registration for my first term, I was delighted to see that contextualization was an option and did not conflict with any of my required classes. Taking it required an overload of 20 credit hours, which at times seemed too much, especially during my first term. Some weeks it seemed that I spent as much time on contextualization as my other 5 classes combined, but it was definitely worth it.

It is a complex process that defies simplistic definitions, like most, but basically contextualization is the discipline of translating the gospel into another culture. Everything we have experienced in Christianity is culturally conditioned. All theology is contextual theology. This does not mean there are no universals, or that nothing applies across cultures, but it does mean that our experience of Christianity comes culturally packaged. This is not in itself bad or wrong, but when undertaking missions in other cultures this becomes very important.

Contextualization is a relatively recent field, and has been fraught with controversy. Especially until more recently, most missionaries have operated without any understanding of their cultural assumptions, and when coming to Africa transform their convertees to a white, Western version of Christianity. Obviously this is what Christianity is, and all the old pagan African ways must be discarded. This has resulted in a myriad of problems, not the least of which is the practice of Christianity as a foreign religion that does not pertain to many core issues facing African Christians: the treatment of ancestors, protection from evil spirits and witches, polygamy, issues of sickness and healing, etc. As missions scholars began to think through this situation, the need for a holistic, contextualized gospel became apparent. I was pleased to find that Wheaton College was one of the pioneering institutions in this field.

The broad contours I've sketched above did not come as a shock to me, but many of the specific questions we wrestled with during the class I found very difficult. What do you do as a pastor when a mother in your congregation accuses the widow who sits in the back row of cursing her child using witchcraft? What is the relationship between form and meaning? For example, when you enter a culture can you appropriate their old places of worship for Christ, or must you start fresh? What word do you use for God? If you are in a Muslim context, can you use Allah, which is simply the Arabic word for God, or does that have too much religious baggage? How do you explain sin in a culture with 20 different terms for wrongdoing or evil when all of them differ in subtle ways from the broadly encompassing connotations of the English word "sin"? Can you explain Jesus as the greatest ancestor, or will that lead to more confusion? What parts of traditional African religion can be understood as a preparation for the gospels, and which parts must be rejected as antithetical to Christianity?

I'll try to return to some of these issues in a future post, but for now I'd like to focus on how contextualization has changed my thinking. Contextualization has dramatically shifted the way I think about so many things. It really is incorporated into how I approach the Bible, thinking about churches, historical events, etc. I'll look at each of these in turn.

The entire Bible is really one continuous example of contextualization. Calvin uses the term "accommodation" to explain how God lowers himself to our language and concepts. The Old Testament is a prime example of this. The ancient Jews believed that the sky was a solid dome, with little holes where the rain came through, and tracks for the stars to roll around in. The earth is flat and held up by pillars, and sheol is the abode of the dead below the earth. The Bible does not correct any of these beliefs, but rather operates within their paradigm. God used their cultural views to transmit His revelation. The book of Acts is a testament to the cultural shifts the gospel underwent as it spread beyond Judaism to the Gentiles. Moving beyond circumcision, sacrifices and other Jewish regulations was a difficult transition, but necessary for any of us who are not Jewish to be accepted into the Christian faith. All of the epistles are an example of the contextualized form the gospel takes on in each area. Every context is different, with its own concerns and questions, and our theology must reflect that.

A local church body is also a reflection of contextualization. This may be a good or a bad example, but it will be an example. Willow Creek was held up in some of the articles we read as a great example of contextualizing the faith to postmodern suburban middle class Americans. You may not like what they are doing, but that is their foundation. I despise many characteristics of smaller African churches I have visited, but they are undoubtedly well contextualized for their environment. Any church can be examined in terms of what they have done to incorporate their setting and reach the people around them. Most churches today, for example, are held in the local language (or the language of their target group), which is an excellent contextually sensitive choice.

Church history can also be understood in those terms. Once in class, our professor made the point that the Reformation is more than a theological movement, it is a contextual movement. The mass was conducted in Latin, and none of the people knew Latin, so when Luther decided that German services should be done in German, this revolutionized the church. The people could understand what was going on!! He translated the Bible in German, wrote songs in German, encouraged Sunday school education, and made the church incredibly more relevant to people's lives. Dr. Rasmussen said that there is a trend that the regions with Latin-based language stayed Roman Catholic, and those with other languages switched. One of the big factors was language: many people were not making a theology choice in the various disputes raised by the Reformation, but they wanted to go to a church where they understood the service. The entire history of missions can be seen as the journey of the Christian faith from an entirely Jewish religion to a dazzling variety of languages and cultures across the world.

There is much more I could say, but I'll wind down at this point. The most practical take-away for me was the necessity of knowing my context. When I preach in Kibera, I must try to adjust my message to their comprehension level and address the issues they face. This past week when I was preaching in Kibera, I used the story of the rich young ruler to illustrate a point, and it suddenly struck me: this story does not apply to them at all. It applies to me. I am the rich one, and they are the ones who are poor. It was a strange moment. So wherever you are: know your context. Understand how to communicate. Location, location, location. It applies more widely than you may think...

Friday, January 9, 2009

Back to Class

It is nice to be back in class. This term I am taking power encounter, Hebrew II, church ministry and mission, sociology of language, and Reformation thru modern church history. Unfortunately I don't have a blow off class (like postgraduate research) this term, although sociology of language looks interesting and easy. Last term I was able to get through church history by relying on the wonderfully comprehensive notes provided for us, and um focusing my attention in other ways during class time, keeping track of the main points but able to accomplish many other things as well. Hebrew remains my GPA arch-nemesis.

People have been very welcoming since I've been back. One thing I noticed is that everyone greeted me with "Happy New Year," even up through January 6th! I mean, yes I hadn't seen you since before the new year, but really, that was like a week ago. It seems that most other place a great deal more importance on New Year's than the US. I know Japan and China does, and now I've seen that Kenya does too. I think a big difference is the centrality of Christmas: I wasn't here, but the impression I've gotten is that Christmas is not as big of a deal here. In the US, Christmas is so huge that for New Years most people can only manage go out to drink and by 12:00 has passed its over. Christmas really is the capstone of an entire month, which here does not seem to be true in the same way. So New Years gets the lion's share of the attention.

I still marvel at how many people here know my name. The other day the lady cleaning the classroom building said, "Hi David! How was your Christmas?" And I was thinking, how do you know my name, I don't think we've ever met. Probably about 30-40% of the people who greet me by name I don't know, have no idea who they are. But they all know who I am. Its to be expected, I shouldn't really be so surprised.

One more story from Heathrow. I was sitting, waiting for my flight, on much nicer chairs than most US airports can boast, when I noticed what this really cute girl sitting across from me was saying. She was talking about the difference between being in graduate school and her undergrad, and she made a lot of good points; I could relate. Then she started talking about ministry, and Sunday school, and various opportunities she thought the church was missing. So she seemed to be a Christian. Then she started talking about Swahili, and I was like my goodness, you have got to be kidding me. How much more could we have in common? I debated it, but I couldn't bring myself up to go over and introduce myself and inform her that we had many similar interests. Maybe I'll run into her sometime, I don't think the world of white English speaking Christians attending graduate school with at least some experience of Swahili is really that big...

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Heathrow and Jet Lag

Well, I have been rather neglectful of this blog recently, as I have been in the US over break, meaning that I have avoided anything that resembles work. It was really good to be home, and it went by really fast. I was both in Maryland at home and out in Chicago catching up with my Wheaton friends.

The flight this time went though London, and I was curious what Heathrow would be like, since I had read it's a terrible airport: unreliable, dirty, just not good. However, on my brief way through, I think it was one of the nicest airports I have ever seen. It was really modern and fancy, with the usual shopping and restaurants, but more upscale than I expected. I found this Japanese restaurant that was really authentic, they had yakisoba, tonkatsu, ramen, and even edamame as a side (for like 4 pounds, 6 or 7 dollars). I got ramen, and it was real ramen, quite filling, and cost 9 pounds, which came to 12 dollars with tip. Rather expensive, but only a bit more than the usual price for genuine Japanese ramen, like non-instant. It's really a whole different food.

But I digress. My sleep schedule has been rather warped since I have arrived. I got in Saturday night at 9:30 pm, went to bed at 2 am, then woke up at 5 am Sunday morning. I went to church, and then came back and fell asleep at 2 pm. I woke up a few times, but didn't get up until midnight. I hadn't eaten all day, so at 2 am I made some freeze dried beef stew which I had gotten for Christmas. I'm sure you all can relate, you know being in Nairobi and eating freeze dried food in the middle of the night because you can't sleep. I was up from midnight to 4 am, and then slept until 7:30. I went to my 8 am class, and then actually didn't go to bed until 11, but woke up anyway at like 3:45 am. Its getting better though, I didn't get up until 5 today. It's kind of nice, pretending I'm a morning person, having several hours to do things before my 8 am class, but I know it won't last. And it will also be nice to be on a normal schedule again. Its now 2:15, so I should go have lunch. I decided to utilize the faster internet capacities afforded by lunch hour (1 to 2), but the window of half decent speeds has passed. Until next time...