Thursday, November 29, 2018

The People God Uses

I mentioned in a previous post that attitudes in the Majority community in Indonesia have been hardening towards the gospel.
I will try to write about three contrasting and instructive stories I heard during my stay in Jogja (as people usually call Yogyakarta). Each is representative of a type of witness being undertaken by brothers and sisters with a heart for those who do not have much access to the gospel. 
Firstly, the couple I mentioned here are working among hard-line reformists in one of the other large islands. They have pursued their ministry in a traditional way, despite the opposition from their Arabising neighbours, talking directly with them of Allah (as both Christians and Muslims alike call God), sin, Christ, and salvation. 
“Many of the women have a full veil,” the wife told me, “but I am not afraid of them.” “They tell me, ‘You Christians are better than we are. We hide our discontentment under our veils. Inside we are angry and are always fighting with our husbands, not like you people.’” 
I was humbled at their love for the Lord, their evangelistic zeal, and their evident love for the people, all far more important than strategy and methods of cross-cultural communication. It is easy for someone like me, who thinks a lot about evangelistic approaches, to miss the significance of ordinary believers taking steps of faith in difficult situations with their limited understanding. 
“But,” as the Apostle Paul tells us, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Cor 1:27-29). We need to ponder that regularly.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

A Hardening of the Categories

Technological progress in Indonesia has had a big impact on lifestyle, especially, as in other parts of the majority world, in the cities. Over the past few decades, and in response to that change, the Majority community and the Christian minority have reacted largely in opposite ways: the one retrenching and becoming more fundamentalist and the other largely capitulating to modernity. I think there are multiple reasons for this. For one thing the Chinese community (represented disproportionately in the churches) is overwhelmingly urban.
But this alone is not sufficient to explain the difference. Despite its Reformed roots, the evangelical church in Indonesia is ill-equipped to engage with culture. The reason for this, I think, should be found in the theology of religion espoused by the Dutch missionary Hendrik Kraemer, who advocated, in the 1930s, for a compete break from traditional culture by the Indonesian church. It was, if I understand correctly, his emphasis on the ‘antithesis’ – the conflict between, as he saw it, two incommensurable systems – that led to this ideology. The consequence is that people coming from traditional religions have had to adapt to foreign ways of worship and witness. And as changes to lifestyle come along, they are ill-equipped to critique those changes and the philosophy that has given rise to them. Is this why nearly all the Christian meetings I went along to were characterised by megadecibel poppy praise songs, some complete with smoke machines? Such an uncritical acceptance of the new is surely a capitulation to modernity. It is hardly surprising that the preaching of the Word left much to be desired: I am not talking about heresy, but I am talking about error.
The Majority community are horrified. So, they get their women-folk to wear the hijab (a recent development) and chant all the more vehemently through the loud-speakers adorning their mosques. Members of one family went even further and blew themselves up in three churches earlier in the year. I am not saying that suicide bombing is the churches’ fault. I am saying that it does not all come down to satanic fanaticism.
There has been, then, a hardening of the categories. Reaching out to the Majority community has become fraught with difficulties. The days of the largely folk-religious turning to Christ, with little societal opposition, may have largely gone. It is not all bleak, however. Followers of Christ have sought to respond to this new situation in creative ways. But more of that later.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Needed: Integrative Theology

As I fly home, I want to write down a few reflections on my time while the memories are still fresh. It’s been a privilege to have had these two weeks. I have enjoyed my time in Indonesia very much. My hosts in both places were very kind and went out of their way time and again for me. Indonesia reminds me of South India and Sri Lanka with its tropical vegetation and hot and humid climate. The people are friendly, always ready to smile, and a smile goes a long way in Indonesia: they say you will be forgiven many a mistake with a smile and a simple ‘sorry’. A ‘nice’ person is a good person. I wonder how that affects notions of sin and guilt, justice, crime and punishment.
Bandung Theological Seminary was founded, with the help of missionaries, by leaders of churches with a Reformed emphasis. These churches are dominated by Chinese, who form a significant proportion of the evangelical movement in the archipelago. My impression was that the seminary and denomination are well-heeled, being sponsored by wealthy businessmen. The students are well educated, their facility in English giving them unparalleled access to theological resources in their 60,000-volume library. Some of the students in my class are in ministries in which they might find it hard to benefit from my teaching, struggling with nominalism and apathy in the Christian community, rather than the joys and complexities of interaction with those of other traditions. Other students, however, seemed to find the challenge to their theological paradigm of religious pluralism very stimulating, and are considering how it might impact their ministries, especially among the Majority community and modern, secularised city dwellers.
Many of the students at ETSI in Yogyakarta, by contrast, come from far-flung, technologically less developed islands, with, I was informed, a corresponding inferiority complex. Relationships between faculty members struck me as very warm and collegial. I had lunch with the principal and two other faculty members one day. All three had turned to Christ out of Islam in their youth, when to do so did not usually carry with it the same social stigma as it does today (not that it was easy for them). All had gone through the rigorous system of the seminary and had the stories to share. Many of them had done their PhDs in American seminaries, with Dallas having quite an influence.
My approach to the course in both institutions was to give a lesson in contextual theologizing – that is, reflecting critically on modern thinking as it is expressed in both the West, from where the tradition of academic theology has spread across the world, and in Indonesia, where the national ideology of Pancasila stands over its six official ‘religions’.
Many seemed to find my approach stimulating. I was told that the leadership of the seminary in Bandung had revised the curriculum in order to get the students to think theologically on current societal issues but have found it difficult to recruit teachers. The lecturers are happy to teach systematic theology (both Berkhof and Ryrie are in Indonesian) or books of the Bible but don’t want to take on the challenge of more integrative courses. This fits in with some previous encounters with theological education in Asia. Taking on a new module and preparing it from scratch demands a lot more thought than going through notes from one’s own training. But the more I learned about the religious context in Indonesia, the more concerned I became that even seminary lecturers seem not to want to do the creative work. The missiological dimension is crucial in this. If we are going to reach the large number of people who have little or no access to the gospel, including in the Indonesian archipelago, we must do the hard work. Neither Berkhoff nor Ryrie, I ventured to guess, had much to say about honouring ancestors, spirit possession, or idolatry.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

More Notes from Indonesia

I’ve been in Yogyakarta for a week now, teaching at the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Indonesia, and what a joy it has been. In contrast to the class I taught in Bandung, few students here have much facility in English. I had 28 men and women, and what a variety of faces in the room: Indonesia really is a land of diversity, ethnically as well as linguistically and religiously. There were students from nearly every corner of the country: a Batak tribal from Sumatra in the west, three men from Papua, two or three thousand miles to the east, and others from many of the islands in between: Borneo, Sulawesi, Maluku, Nusa Tengara, and of course Java, where the seminary is.
The seminary, and Immanuel Christian University that shares the campus, were started by a dynamic Indonesian leader called Chris Marantika in the 1970s. His vision was that the seminary would be a hub for church planting across the archipelago. Students would go each weekend to outlying places to share the gospel and gather believers into churches. They would not be allowed to graduate until they had baptized 15 people from unevangelized communities. They saw tremendous fruit for years and even multiplied seminaries in far-flung locations to extend the work.
In recent years, however, resistance from the majority community has made it difficult to function quite so openly, so students often work within already established churches, though other, more sensitive work has also begun.
I taught, as in Bandung, on Biblical Perspectives on Pluralism, only, this time with translation. The first day, we looked at the question of theological method, or how we go about addressing the question of pluralism, focussing on what we mean by terms like ‘religion’, ‘religions’, and ‘pluralism’, and exploring the influence of the Enlightenment on Western thought and how that has had an impact even in a place like Indonesia. The students were patient, but I think they found it heavy-going. 
Day two, and we looked at a number of relevant texts of Scripture, such as those that tell us about creation and fall, Babel and Melchizedek, Peter with Cornelius, and Paul in Athens. This was more up their street. They were brighter and more attentive, reading out the texts in Indonesian and asking intelligent questions.
On the third day, we looked at how we might respond missiologically to the context here in the light of the way religions are lived out, focussing on Primal and Majority communities. The students were so receptive and gave me such warm appreciation when we finished (as well as presenting me with a fancy batik shirt).
During the week I met with some of the students and faculty and heard so many extraordinary stories. I cannot begin to recount them all, and some are so sensitive I have to think carefully before sharing them at all.
For now, two related stories will suffice. I met a brother who works in Palu, Sulawesi, which was where the earthquake and tsunami occurred at the end of September. Sadly, he lost nine of his extended family as their house was swallowed up by the earth in that terrible soil liquefaction. Being a follower of Christ does not automatically protect you from danger. My friends here have been able to channel aid to this family and a whole lot of others.
The second, really remarkable story came from a married couple of master’s students. In March, as Febee told me, her three children each had a vision. They were not dreaming, it was in broad daylight, and all three saw it. In the vision, the children saw what they thought was a woman with long hair and in a dress - their mother perceived it to be an angel, carrying a scroll, tied with a red ribbon. The angel threw down the scroll, which then turned into a bowl and landed upside down on the earth. The children and their parents were much affected by the vision, though their father, who had been away at the time, was cautious about its significance. Their mother, on the other hand, felt at once that it was a warning of impending disaster and immediately began to visit her neighbours, to recount the vision and pass on the warning.
In August they moved here to Java for their studies, with one of the children, leaving the other two in … Palu. Imagine their horror as they saw the news and tried to find out if their other children, staying with grandparents, were safe. Thankfully, they were all saved from tragedy, experiencing a dramatic near miss from falling furniture. What effect has it had on the community? That, sadly, I could not find out. Perhaps they also do not yet know, as they have not yet been able to visit. I am a sceptic at heart but find it very difficult to dismiss such a story. Nor do I think it is necessary: God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform. Pray for them and for their community. 

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Notes from Indonesia

I am in Indonesia for two weeks as a guest of a couple of seminaries. My first week here has come to an end and I am on the train from Bandung to Yogyakarta, sitting next to a pleasant Muslim lady in her headscarf. The train preparation staff all stood in a line and bowed to us as we pulled out of the station – match that Bridgend! We have been passing through recently-harvested paddy fields and villages. Banana, coconut, papaya and bamboo and some other tropical trees are growing between the fields, and the long train trip gives me an opportunity to reflect on the week. 
This is my first visit to the country and the first time I have crossed the equator. I was a little fearful I would find it too hot, but Bandung is very pleasant, being about 3000 feet above sea level. It has rained almost every afternoon in typical equatorial fashion, sometimes hard with lightning and thunder. So that has kept the heat down too. And I have never been far from air conditioning. So, it has been easy, actually.
I have not found the seven-hour time change easy at all. Several nights I had only two or three hours of proper sleep. I hope my teaching did not suffer too much. It is better now.
I have been staying in the guest lecturer’s room at Bandung Theological Seminary. Each morning I have been going for a walk in the neighbourhood. I like getting out of the compound to see the life of local people, and exchange smiles and greetings. Bandung is a city of three million people. It has an old colonial centre with grand buildings and pleasant boulevards. Out of the centre, the few main roads with their shiny office blocks and hotels are terribly congested and the people live in densely packed neighbourhoods of one- and two-storey houses with neatly swept but tiny courtyards, beautiful cage-birds singing, cats prowling, small shops selling fruit, cigarettes and other necessities and, seemingly, a small mosque on every corner. The narrow streets and tight lanes of my morning walk throng with women and men going to work on their scooters and motorbikes – nobody seems to walk or cycle if they can avoid it –, uniformed children being taken to school, hawkers selling foodstuffs from their trolleys, the old lady selling ghastly-looking medicines, the man directing traffic at the junction and collecting coins from drivers for his pains, and rubbish collectors. Given the conditions, it is remarkable how clean and orderly the neighbourhood is. But I have yet to see one item being recycled: like many other developing countries Indonesia clearly has a garbage problem and one I hope they get on top of soon.
On Thursday my hosts, Dwi and Shanti took me for a trip to the local volcano. At around 6000ft the air is cooler. To my surprise there was a car park at the crater rim – it last erupted in 2013. From there we walked around the rim of the main crater and then down into one of the others. The smell of sulphur was powerful. Amazingly, trees and other plants grow even in the dusty ash soil of the crater. The Minahasa tree is amazingly resilient – its bark gets burnt black by the fumes, but it still produces tasty fruit – a good sermon illustration I reckon.
I was invited to teach a module on Biblical Perspectives on Pluralism on the MTh course. Dwi and her co-leaders there have recently reshaped the curriculum, putting more emphasis on interdisciplinary studies appropriate to their context. Sadly, they couldn’t find anyone in the region to teach the pluralism course (something I didn’t realise until I arrived and very disturbing) and hence the invitation. I spent two months in preparation and found it both challenging and rewarding. I was afraid I had bitten off more than I could chew and would not be very helpful, especially when I discovered that pluralism is a central cherished plank in their national ideology, expressed in the motto ‘Unity in diversity’!
I had 13 students: 10 men and 3 women. All with significant ministry experience, several pastors (one with a congregation of a thousand!), two lecturers, one woman working in conflict resolution, coming from various islands of the archipelago.
We spent a total of 25 hours in the classroom together. The first day we focussed on how we go about creating a theological foundation for addressing the topic. This was vital for what we were about to do as it forced us to ask critical questions about our pre-understanding – What do we mean by ‘religion’? and so on.
We then worked through various key biblical passages interacting with significant theologians as we went. Then we sought to answer some central theological questions that had arisen from our studies: Can anyone be saved without conscious faith in Christ? Can we learn anything from other religious traditions? etc.
Finally, we addressed missiological consequences of our studies, focussing on (by their choice) ministry in Muslim and secular societies.
I found the students very attentive and a joy to teach. They taught me much too. Some struggled to work in English. Others engaged very well; they are very well-read and familiar with nearly every author I would mention – Carson, Grudem, Bavinck, Conn, Keller, Stott, McGrath; the Reformed heritage is strong. Some are in mainline denominations, battling liberalism, others in evangelical churches that are the product of a movement to Christ in Java among the Chinese two generations ago, supplemented by a huge influx of people escaping the anti-communist death squads of the 1960s (you avoided suspicion by identifying yourself as a Christian). Nominalism is rife. Nevertheless, the desire is there to reach out to other communities who are largely untouched by the gospel – the main area in which I sought to help them.
I have a week in Yogyakarta now, where I have been invited to teach three evenings to a mixed group of MTh and BTh students. I am also to speak in the chapel of Immanuel Christian University on Monday.