Thursday, December 20, 2012

Urban Religion

More on Harvie Conn's last published work - written with Manuel Ortiz - Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City and the People of God  (Leicester, Inter-Varsity, 2001).

In chapter 9 Harvie Conn investigates the relationship of religion and the city. I think this chapter is excellent. Conn rightly criticises Emile Durkheim (the founder of the sociology of religion) for his reduction of religion to “a merely functionalist role in society” (p. 176).

It is tempting when reflecting on the modern city to suggest, as some have, that the modern city is a secular phenomenon. Conn reports that religion has traditionally been very significant in the development of the city. Cities in Swaziland, for example, though little bigger than villages, are 'regal-ritual' centres (p. 174). Thailand, likewise, is a place where ‘cities were the moral and social center of society, the peak of its hierarchy culminating in the king’ (p. 180). In this they were very similar to the medieval Hindu cities of South Asia as I discuss in Caste and Kinship in a Modern Hindu Society ( 

But it is not just traditional cities that are religious. Far from being a place devoid of religion, the city today continues to be very religious. Conn very helpfully uses Ahern and Davies’ (1987:32) typology to catalogue the all-absorbing religious commitments of urbanites including those that have no apparent supernatural reference points. There are four nodes around which “religion’s ‘magnetic points’ may cluster” (p. 185). Each of the nodes is shaped by two fundamental dimensions: organized/nonorganized and supernatural/empirical (though lines are blurry).

The supernatural and religion common and conventional
1.      Conventional or institutional religion
This is the form of religion most easily recognized by the traditional student of religion in the city. Weber and Durkheim among others spoke of the urban erosion of such traditional beliefs and morality by the city.

2.      Common or folk religion
This is much less tied to a sophisticated or geographically universal institution. “Its formulations are more thematic than systematic, not a fully coherent whole but a large array of separate elements” (p. 185). It is more instrumentalist, responding to local and immediate questions. It is predominant in tribal and peasant societies (cf. Hiebert and Meneses, Incarnational Ministry, 1995) but persisting in modern cities. Astrology, occult, and superstition are characteristic beliefs and practices and New Age phenomena with their decentralized networks pervade many Western cities. “Frustrations with the organizational can turn the participant away not from the supernatural but from the organizational. And sometimes the movement is in the opposite direction—from nonorganizational to organizational” (p. 186).

The empirical and religion invisible and surrogate
3.      Invisible or diffused religion
This may have the vocabulary of the Christian faith in lands in which Christianity has been dominant but it is neither organized nor supernatural. It could be the feelings generated by music, art or dance. “Verbal symbols without Christian trappings also surface, pointing to the same nonorganized religious orientation, the same nostalgic quest for meaning outside the boundary lines of the supernatural” (p. 187).

4.      Surrogate religion
The organized equivalent of conventional religion but without any explicitly supernatural reference points. Organizations and associations may adopt symbols that perform as quasi-religious rituals. National days, civil religion, and ideas of manifest destiny express surrogate religion. In the middle of Britain’s urban revolution between 1879 and 1914 sports became a surrogate religion for many urbanites. “It ‘did for some people many of the same things that religion did for others’ (McLeod 1996:199). Sport was not an alternative to religion but one of its examples” (p. 190).

 This is a brilliant typology and one that we need to take very seriously as we seek to engage our cities with the gospel.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Early Churches in Nepal

Review of Early Churches in Nepal: An Indigenous Christian Movement Till 1990, by Rajendra K. Rongong (Kathmandu: Ekta Books, 2012), 171 pages, NC 250.

Prof Rajendra Rongong, is one of the senior leaders of the church in Nepal. He has written this book as "a simple record of God's work in Nepal" (p. 5). The record, he writes, is based on "the experiences of many early Christians and the information obtained through church leaders' responses to a questionnaire, oral statements by individuals, and ... observations of the author himself". He warns that those looking for a scholarly account may be disappointed.

The first three chapters, describing the early efforts at Christian ministry in Nepal, are documented elsewhere and don't really add anything to these previous works (such as Jonathan Lindell's Nepal and the Gospel of God [1979, 1997], Cindy Perry's A Biographical History of the Church of Nepal [1990; 3rd edition, 2000], and Norma Kehrberg's The Cross in the Land of the Khukuri [2002]). In chapter 4, however, 'Advent of Democracy in Nepal and Entry of Christians' Prof Rongong gives an acount of the movement to Christ from the early fifties when the Rana oligarchy was overthrown. This is where the book picks up, not just because that period was so exciting, but because the author was personally involved.

In chapter 5 we are given a short account of the first few churches established. Some of this was new to me which could be because it has not been documented before or because I have forgotten (I do not have the other works with me anymore).

After a short chapter on 'The Nature of Early Churches in Nepal' the author goes on to list 16 churches that were established during the Panchayat regime (1960-1990). He does not claim to be exhaustive here but would like to provide a full list in a future edition. I think there must be several omissions. I find it surprising that Aradhana Mandali, Sanepa is not included. From my poor memory the Church of Christ, Thapathali, and churches that identified themselves as Baptist and 'El Shaddai' must also have been in existence at that time. The author is relying heavily on reports sent to him by the churches themselves. As such numbers are taken at face value as also assertions of self-support that seem hollow to this reviewer.

After two short chapters on 'Consequences of Persecution' and 'Church Growth' Rongong goes on to discuss 'Reasons that Contributed to the Growth of the Church'. Like so much of the book the author is heavily dependent on other works such as that of Kehrberg. He suggests that one "distinct phenomenon that resulted in the revival and growth of churches was the work of the Holy Spirit" (p. 122). He reports that "towards the later part of the 1960s and early 1970s, a few leaders ... had the experience of the anointing of the Holy Spirit" which resulted in phenomena such as tongue speaking and healing. We are not told what this was distinct from."Praise and worship soon became a common feature of the service in almost all churches.... Revival became the order of the day" (p. 123) The author here is using the periphrasis 'praise and worship' (Np. stuti prasamsa) in a very restricted sense (everyone standing and singing and praying out loud together) and in opposition to the worship forms that had been common till that time.

In chapter 11 Rongong describes the restoration of democracy of 1990 (not 1989 as on p. 125).

In chapter 12 the events of the 2001 palace massacre and its aftermath and described in brief and a number of well-wishing messages from prominent politicians to the church are included.

'The Current Situation' is described briefly in the following chapter with an extraordinary report that "some missions or denominations ... from Asia ... have initiated their own brand of evangelism with such fervour that in some cases they even resort to physical violence" (p. 141). No wonder then that in the next paragraph we read that "open hostility from different religious groups is perceived."

The last chapter on "The Role of Expatriate Missionaries in the History of the Church" is followed by a substantial appendix furnished to the author by Dr Ramesh Khatry listing all the known incidents of arrest, sentences, and torture of Christians in Nepal during the 70s and 80s. Some of the brief notes are stirring indeed and leave one longing for a fuller account of these events.

A helpful bibliography concludes the book.

I am grateful to Prof Rongong for his contribution to the documentation of the first several decades of the church in Nepal. The book, however, is very disappointing to me for the following reasons:
  • it is heavily dependent on other already published works
  • it is hagiographic in style - there are three identical photos of Pastor David Mukhia and two of Pastor Robert Karthak (the author's brother-in-law, who also wrote an introduction) scattered throughout the book
  • it is not at all critical - apparently no attempt has been made to verify the claims of the churches in their reports to the author - leaving it looking decidedly naive
The biggest disappointment to me is that the author missed an opportunity to write his own memoires more fully. The most interesting feature of the book is the author's account of his own involvement in the growth of the church during this period. One longs for more and it is hoped that he and other leaders can write their memoires more fully before they pass on their ministry to others and receive a royal welcome into the presence of the Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Statistical Temptations

The 2011 census of Nepal has just been published by the Central Bureau of Statistics. This has come to the attention of Christianity Today in the States because of the huge rise in the proportion of Christians in the country from the last census of 2001. It appears that CT got their information from AsiaNews, which is clearly a Roman Catholic website. It is a pity they didn't check their sources better, or they would have discovered that it was not Nepal's first census (it was Nepal's 11th) but rather the first since it became a Republic.

The statistic that is focussed on by Christianity Today is that of religion. We are told that the number of Christians in Nepal has risen from 0.4% in 2001 to 1.4% is 2011 to a total of 375,699. Now my students will know my opinion on census stats. While I am thrilled that, to use Luke's words, the word of God has spread and the number of the disciples has increased rapidly (Acts 6:7), two issues bother me with the publication of these numbers:

Firstly, censuses are not as reliable as they may seem. There is already disquiet among some communities in Nepal that the numbers in their group are not accurately recorded. While I can sympathize with the aggrieved protestors it is hardly surprising that the census is flawed. Even if the data gatherers really visited each home (rather than ask a passer by who lives in that house four hours up the mountain) the nature of questions predetermines the answers to a large extent. We are told there are 10 religions in Nepal: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Kirat, Christianity, Prakriti, Bon, Jainism, Bahai, Sikhism. I didn't see the census schedule but I suppose there was no Other box to tick. If there were, perhaps Nepal would have as many Jedis as the UK had in the 2001 census, after an internet campaign led many to identify themselves as belonging to that noble company! The AsiaNews article quotes a Protestant leader C. B. Gahatraj as moaning, "We believe our population is more than the report claims. The problem is that during the census period, many newly converted Christians were afraid to tell their religion, and so were registered as Hindu." So even if the census is good at counting, the respondents don't always give the answers they are looking for. After all, it isn't long ago that Christians were fairly systematically persecuted in Nepal. But the biggest problem with such statistical data is that they cannot say anything about the quality of the profession of faith that is made by the respondents and as such they are not significant spiritually.

Secondly, Christians have, especially since 1990 and the movement for the restoration of democracy (Jana Andolan), often sought to use such statistics to claim certain privileges for themselves. The push, about 10 or 12 years ago, for the public recognition of Christmas Day as a national holiday, is an example of this. Now, while I have no problem with Nepali followers of Christ wanting a day off on the 25th December, this is rather awkward. The national calendar of Nepal (Vikram Sambat) doesn't even follow the Gregorian calendar. When asked by fellow Nepalis if Christmas Day is the day Jesus was born they have to explain that, no it isn't but it is the day that Christians in northern Europe chose to celebrate as such a long time ago. Identity politics is founded on statistical data. The more people we can get recognized as part of our group the more political clout we can wield. Which is why Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai was at pains to warn the fractious communities of Nepal not to use the census to press for religious privileges. Followers of Christ in the New Testament did not appeal for privileges. They too lived in a religiously plural society and thrived in it in spite of persecution. They had no emotional need to march through the city and show the wider community how many are them there were. Paul told Timothy to instruct the church in Ephesus in this way: "I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people - for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2: 1-4). So I am with the Maoists on this one. Paul was not into claiming special privileges and neither am I. I appeal to my Nepali brothers and sisters - don't do it. Follow Paul and, as it happens, Baburam!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Conn the Optimist

More on Harvie Conn's last published work - written with Manuel Ortiz - Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City and the People of God  (Leicester, Inter-Varsity, 2001). 

There is much that is very helpful in this book. Part 2 contains a number of insights into the biblical persepcitves of the city. In complete contrast to Jacques Ellul's The Meaning of the City (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), however, Conn is at pains to point out the positive of city building in the Bible. He asserts that the cultural mandate may just as well be termed an ‘urban mandate’ (p. 87). “...the founding of the first city will be one of the first achievements of this enduring mandate to expand the borders of the garden (Gen 4:17,” says Conn, rather than the act of rebellion as Ellul sees it as. But he is not completely optimistic; the city can symbolize contrasting attitudes: “So the heart builds a city either in defiance of God (Gen 11:4) or out of covenant obedience” (p. 93).

In Part 3, Understanding the City, Conn wants to repudiate a negative view of the city that sees it purely as a place of chaos. So he reports the finding of the classic 1968 study of Taylor Street in Chicago by Gerald Suttles: “He noted a social order structured around ecologically settled ethnic areas” that produced a “stable moral order” in which “graffiti at the strategic corners was a means for youth gangs to mark off their territoriality and zones of safety” (p. 171). One wonders whether the graffiti also marked off the territory of gangs and their control of the drugs trade but Conn doesn’t even suggest that as a possibility. Is Conn being naive here? I think so. The city is a place of order that we often may not be able to discern. That reflects on our prejudice and lack of careful observation and reflection. But, as Conn would no doubt have acknowledged, it is not a sinless order. Where there is order, there is also disorder, the inevitable consequence of rebellion against the ordered Creator. While not being unremittingly down on the city, we must avoid the other extreme of urban naivete.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Review of Make the World Your Parish

I was asked by Evangelical Times to do a book review for them. It was in the September issue I think. Here it is for those who don't read that paper. I find it hard to write a review of a missions book for a wide readership. On the one hand there will be plenty of readers who have no interest in missions. These people need desperately to read almost any book on missions.

Make the World Your Parish: Increasing Your Global Influence for Christ by Reggie Weems (Leominster: DayOne, 2012; 112 pages; £6).

Reggie Weems,  pastor of Heritage Baptist Church, Johnson City, Tennessee, USA has written this book to “help pastors understand the full ramifications of applied grace (practical theology), and in so doing increase their global influence for Christ” (p. 20). He has a heart for getting pastors involved in mission and helping them lead their congregations in mission just as he has during his twenty year ministry. 

Weems explains the difference between the terms ‘mission’, ‘missions’, ‘missio Dei’ and ‘missional’ as they are used in contemporary missiology and is keen to disabuse his readers of the idea that mission is just something that people do in far-flung places. His emphasis is on discipleship which leads to mission, wherever people are. Weems argues, rigthly, that foreign mission is an extension of this and the author includes a number of case studies of people who are living ‘missionally’ as examples of what he is teaching. I think this is all good stuff. 

I am not especially keen on the book, however, because, although he does include some choice phrases and statements (e.g. “Mission is God’s grace-based global initiative” [p. 19]) sometimes his writing seems to lack originality and can even be quite obscure. The book could have done with a more careful edit.

Having said that I hope Weems’ book is read widely among his fellow pastors in Tennessee. I am sure for many it will increase their passion for God and their appreciation for world mission  today, and will encourage them to be senders, supporters and goers themselves.