Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Caste and Community in Confusion



This is part 2 of a two-part interaction with Frontier Mission's May/June issue on India. See part 1 here.
I find the ongoing use of “caste” as the key sociological concept for the purposes of church planting deeply problematic, as I explained in some detail in a previous publication.[1] I am not sure whether people have ignored that article or simply don’t understand it, since nobody has interacted with that article. If that article is opaque, I hope I can have a chance here to remedy that.
The question of how we classify people clearly continues to excite imaginations, as we see in the recent Patidar reservation agitation in which a dominant caste in Gujarat has attempted to get legal recognition as a downtrodden people in order to be recipients of affirmative action. In this regard I find it naïve that the author identified as, A Passionate Indian Servant can say in “Why the Community/ Caste Focus is Needed in Support of Church Planting Movements” that, “There is too much of classifying people by who we think they are, rather than who they perceive themselves to be. Identities, however, are always a product of negotiation between insiders and outsiders, so it does not make sense to try to classify everyone simply according to their self identifier. In South Asia, especially, these things are contested.
In the editorial, the significance of community is front and center: “Each of these communities will likely need a separate movement of disciple making and church planting – thereby making India the greatest challenge to world evangelization…today”.
If there are “thousands of different communities all separated by caste, language and religion,” as Rick Wood asserts in “The Only Way to Reach India Is through Movements,” then India does indeed look like the neediest country in the world in terms of church planting. But if India’s communities are not as fissiparous as it first appears, that argument collapses. It does not mean, necessarily, that India is not the greatest challenge, but it does mean that such an assertion would need to be justified on other grounds.
I wonder if part of the problem is that the research is partial and biased. Why, for instance, does A Passionate Indian Servant write that, “Typically, in an Indian city, 99% of those of Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe status are able to supply their community/caste/tribe name when asked.” What about other castes? In my research in Nepal, almost everyone knew their caste – to ask someone’s jati would seem rude but to ask someone’s thar invariably resulted in an immediate and clear answer.
Likewise, Victor John, in “The Bhojpuri Movement Transforming Social Dynamics,” reports that among Bhojpuri speakers “low caste or outcast Dalits and adivasi” make up 80% of the group and the “good news has tended to more quickly enter the low caste”. Nevertheless, he writes that, “If the high caste in our area are only two percent or 10 percent of the population, that same percentage is also reflected in the churches.” I can’t see how both can be true. More likely, it would seem that indeed the Bhojpuri phenomenon is an overwhelmingly Dalit movement, as indeed A Passionate Indian Servant suggests—both the Chamar and Balmiki people are Dalit castes. So John’s claim that the “focus on language rather than caste” results in the movement touching all castes, is not established.
What exactly is caste? The aforementioned author attempts to define caste in ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ ways. But what does he mean by formal and informal? Rather than clarifying the issue, such distinctions obfuscate. One would be hard put to find any scholar making such a distinction. The great need is to define caste as it is lived and experienced. It is only when real communities are understood that social data can be useful. And that only really happens with careful, in-depth, theoretically-sensitive ethnographic observation and interaction. There is little evidence that any such research has been attempted as little ethnographic data is presented.
Is caste the same thing as community? The same writer tells us that, “In south Asia, community largely means ‘caste,’ but is more innocent sounding term and preferable to many. A South Asian community is not a voluntary association, but an ethno-linguistic hereditary group with defined boundaries within which one must marry.”
Community can, of course, be defined in any number of ways, especially in today’s climate of identity politics. Caste, however, has been the subject of intense sociological and historical analysis. The writer quotes historian Sumit Guha: ‘…the bounded, status-ranked ethnic community or ‘caste’ is a social form that frequently appears in multiethnic societies… (pp. 2–3).” But Guha also argues that castes are “geographically bounded communities”.[2] It is this geographical, or territorial, element that is largely missing in so much writing on South Asian missiology. 
Allow me to return to the Badhai, whom I discussed in my previous article. According to the JP, the Badhai are a group of peoples traditionally involved in carpentry. The JP lists five groups in India with the name Badhai: 
·      Badhai (Hindu Traditions)
·      Badhai (Hindu Traditions)
·      Badhai Gandhar
·      Badhai Kharadi 
·      Badhai Konkani
The first group is located across much of north, central, and western India, the second mostly in Uttar Pradesh with many also in other Indian states as well as in Pakistan and Bangladesh, while each of the three latter groups turn out to be rather few in numbers and situated in geographically tightly circumscribed areas.
The Badhai (HT) are further divided into 25 ‘subgroups’, many of whom comprise tens of thousands of individuals, and by the look of their names seem to belong to particular places just as the latter three on the main list. We are told that these subgroups are designated as such because they constitute a “segment of a people group that probably does not need a unique church planting effort.” Why? Because “The Gospel can flow between subgroups without encountering significant barriers of understanding or acceptance.”
Although I know very little about the Badhai in India, I would hazard a guess, based on my detailed field work in Nepal, that people who identify as Badhai in India would indeed have a measure of affinity for one another. However, and this is the crucial point, I think it highly unlikely that they would intermarry at any great distance, nor have much social interaction at all, except in their own locality. My point is that they constitute a societalgroup (i.e. a mental category), not a social group, as there is little interaction between the members, except in their own localities.
If this is the case, one would surmise that the 25 subgroups of the Badhai (HT) are in the same category as the Badhai Gandhar, Badhai Kharadi, and Badhai Konkani, making 28 Badhai (HT) groups in all.[3]
Furthermore, Badhai (Muslim Traditions) are also scattered, suggesting that they too in fact constitute dozens of groups. I am speculating here but Hindu/Muslim relations being what they are in India, I would not expect any significant social interaction between the two religious groupings (though inter-religious social interaction and even marriage is not always out of the question, as my research in Nepal among Hindus and Buddhists demonstrates).
So that begs the question: Does each of these groups in every one of these locations need a distinct effort of church planting? I argue no, for the following reason: For the most part, a caste does not constitute a community. An exception to this might be Dalit castes in any particular locality, where all the people belong to a single, endogamous group. But many villages and all towns and cities are made up of dozens of castes that would rarely intermarry but, nevertheless, have cordial social and religious interaction on a daily basis. It is these villages that constitute a community. In towns and cities, the traditional community may be more on the level of neighbourhood, and it is typically multicaste. With recent rapid urbanization, caste distinctions are even less significant in daily life, as both Victor John and A Passionate Indian Servant recognise.
John does recognise the significance of the locality:
In addition, caste-focused work would be impractical [sic] in many cases. In some villages, there might be only one family from a particular caste. You can’t start a worshiping community with only one family, so you need a multicaste fellowship. We focus on reaching persons based upon their language, geography, and economic status, rather than caste, because that helps the good news to take root throughout the region, and spread.
In conclusion, I would suggest that much more attention be focussed on how various caste groups interact with each other in their villages, village clusters, town neighbourhoods, etc. It is in these interactions that true community is observed and in which gospel communication can readily proceed.


[1] Mark Pickett, “Ethnicity, Kinship, Religion and Territory: Identifying Communities in South Asia,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 32:1 (Spring 2015): 23-36. Cited 28 May 2019. Online: https://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/32_1_PDFs/IJFM_32_1-Pickett.pdf
[2] Sumit Guha, Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2016), 71. I sense some tension in Guha’s work between the ‘tribal’ nature of caste and its territorial expression. See my review of this important book here: https://markpickett.blogspot.com/2019/06/beyond-caste-identity-and-power-in.html.

[3] Having said that, it would seem that modern politics and technology are leading to the closer integration of some such groups. See, for example, the matrimonial service TeriMeriChoice.com. Online: https://www.terimerichoice.com/badhai-matrimony. I am not aware of any research to determine how significant these changes are.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Why TGC and IMB Must Try Harder



The other day, I was happily surprised to see that The Gospel Coalition had published an article on Hinduism. Although there are over a billion Hindus in the world they are largely misunderstood and ignored. And among followers of Christ that translates into a serious lack of prayerful interest. So to see an article on "9 Things You Should Know About Hinduism," by Joe Carter, was encouraging.

I was also pleasantly surprised that it wasn't complete rubbish. Sadly, when evangelicals write on Hinduism their articles and books are nearly always shot through with inaccuracy and naive interpretive miss-steps. 

So to read that, "Although Hinduism is often treated as a single religion, it is more accurate to describe it as a family of religions..." was refreshing.

But to read on that, those religions, "share common beliefs and characteristics" was a big let down.  Although there are certain similarities among many of the groups that make up this great 'family' there really is not one doctrine that one can say all Hindus believe. When an atheist can be a good Hindu, you know that something else provides the common factor. And that factor is that all these beliefs and practices share a common civilisational heritage. That's all.

The author makes further mistakes. I will list some of there here:

  1. Carter asserts that, "The sacred texts of Hinduism outline four primary, though not mutually exclusive, paths to experience Brahman, or ultimate reality, and obtain Moksha" and lists these as Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, and Raja Yoga. As you can see for yourself if you click on the link you are not directed to the sacred texts themselves but to a pro-Hindu polemical web site - not exactly a reliable way to do research, as I would have thought a TGC writer would have figured. Scholarly writings on Hinduism invariably list three paths to experience the divine, not four, the last being in a different category of altogether. Raja yoga, also called samkhya, is an attempt to reverse the effects of evolution on the soul, not a path of liberation to moksha.
  2. He also states that, "The postural yoga often used as a form of exercise in the West is derived from raja yoga." Again, this is just plain wrong, as has been pointed out on this blog before.
  3. Again, "Hinduism has no concept of sin" is simply mistaken. Wrongdoing is well understood by Hindus. Let me quote an authority, K. K. Klostermeier: "Notions of guilt and sin play a great role in Hinduism, and devices for righting wrongs and atoning for sins occupy a large place in the life of many Hindus" (A Survey of Hinduism, p. 146). This idea that Hindus have no concept of sin is trotted out ad nauseam by Christians. The concept may not be the same as the concept we have but it does not mean there is no semantic overlap. Attempts at sharing Christ with Hindus are not so hampered that one cannot talk about failure, impurity, transgression. Indeed, as Paul tells us, "Indeed, when Gentiles who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law fro themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the righteous requirements of the law are written on their hearts..." (Romans 2:14-15). Listen to this poem of the seventeenth century Hindu Marathi poet, Tukaram:
I am a mass of sin;
Thou art all purity;
Yet thou must take me as I am
And bear my load for me.
Me Death has all consumed
In thee all power abides.
All else forsaking, at thy feet
Thy servant Tuka hides.

Carter's big problem is to rely on web sites, some of which are clearly second-rate, for his information. I hope that in future the TGC will represent the Hindu tradition as it really is, rather than as poorly-informed missionaries and polemicists would have us believe.

At school, my report always said that I 'must try harder'. And my assessment of TGC (and IMB for that matter, as their web site was one of the sources) is that they too must try harder. The eternal destiny of over a billion souls depends on it.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Tiki for Jai Ram

“How should we advise him?” Santosh asked Shanti. 
“I don’t know,” replied Shanti. “If he keeps the tiki, people will think he is still a good Hindu when, in fact, he has become a Christian and taken baptism. But if he doesn’t keep the traditions, he will alienate his family and the whole village!” 
No part of the Bible had yet been translated into this language of South Asiawhen Santosh and his wife, Shanti, had arrived in the area. After a few years in which they became fluent in the language and built good relationships with local people, they were ready for the task of translation. As they searched for a reliable language assistant, they eventually thought of Jai Ram, a young man who lived in a nearby village. Jai Ram had been born into a highly respected traditional Hindu Brahman family. As a child, he was taught the customs of his family and his parents hoped he would become well settled in life. They made sure he received the best education they could afford, and Jai Ram was a good student who was well liked in his community.
On graduation from the local college, Jai Ram was looking for work and so agreed to help check the first draft of the Gospel of Mark which Santosh and Shanti had translated into his native tongue. It was during this work that the story of Christ gripped him, and he decided to become his disciple. At first, declaring his new path of devotion was not problematic. 
“So long as you continue to follow our customs, babu,” his mother said, “it doesn’t matter who you worship.” 
Three years had passed. Now one of his close relatives had died, and his uncle had just visited his home to tell them. This meant that the Death Feast would soon be held in the deceased relative’s village to honour him. In that Brahman tradition, the family of the deceased hosts large feasts on the eleventh and twelfth days after the family member has died. It is believed that the more people they feed on these days the more spiritual merit accrues to the person who has died and the better the quality of life they experience in their next reincarnation.
Jai Ram was troubled. He would be expected to come to the Death Feast to show respect for his dead relative. Before the feast he would be expected to have his head shaved in the traditional fashion of a relative of the deceased, leaving a tuft of hair at the back of the head - a tiki. Could he do that now that he was a follower of Jesus? Furthermore, what should he do about the feast? Could he miss the feast without it being considered terribly disrespectful? Dishonour would be brought on his family. 
In the morning, the young man walked over to the next village and set to work on the translation as usual. Over lunch he discussed his problem with Santosh and Shanti.
“Why don’t you attend the feast but not shave your head?” suggested Santosh.
“But,” replied Jai Ram respectfully, “that would be even worse than not going at all, as it would be showing disregard for an important part of our traditions.”
“Then why don’t you just have a barber shave your wholehead and not leave a tiki?” asked Shanti. “That way everyone will realize you are not a Hindu anymore because you won’t have a tiki.
“But there is nothing in the Bible condemning keeping the tiki, is there?” asked Jai Ram.
“True,” said Santosh, “but doesn’t the Bible tell us to avoid even the appearance of wrong? What I am inside should match what I am outside.”
“What about any other rituals?” asked Santosh. “The head shaving is just the preliminary part. Won’t you also be expected to join the others at the ‘holy area’ by the pond, where the priest reads from the Hindu scriptures, and offer flowers, incense and sweets to the gods?” 
“I know,” sighed Jai Ram, “and my family would be very unhappy with me if I bring shame on them by not participating.”
“Could you go along to the feast but skip being involved in any rituals?” asked Shanti.
“Of course, being there and taking part in the feast is the main thing,” replied Jai Ram. “I could try to explain that I can’t take part in the actual religious rituals. But nobody’s done that before. There is bound to be opposition. It will look like I don’t respect my elders.”
“Look, we’ll pray about it tonight and we’ll talk about it again in the morning, Jai Ram brother,” said Santosh.
That evening, as Jai Ram wandered back to the village, he agonized about what he should do. He remembered that even the apostle Paul had shaved his head (Acts 18:18). He wondered what he could do without compromising his own convictions and conscience. To make it more complicated, however, the following week, he was scheduled to give some instruction to a group of new believers from a Hindu background. They would be sure to realize what he had done, when he turned up with just a few days’ hair growth. Maybe they would thinkhe had compromised his faith even if his conscience was clear. Would this cause some of them to stumble in their faith?
Santosh and Shanti also discussed the situation late into the evening. They realized this decision also had repercussions for them. If Jai Ram upset everyone in the village by his actions the villagers would assume they had instructed him that he should not follow their customs. Would this ruin their relationship with the village and discredit their work? On the other hand, if he did indeed shave his head in the traditional way and this became known among believers in the nearby town, would it ruin the relationship and trust they had with other believers and church leaders?
There was no easy answer. Santosh and Shanti agreed that the issue really came down to the significance of the head shaving and tiki, and that of the feast. In the morning, they would walk over to the village, go over the biblical principles with him and see what he did.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present, by Sumit Guha: a Review

Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present, by Sumit Guha, Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2016 (Leiden: EJ Brill, 2013), pp. 291 + xxiii.


In the course of my research in Nepal I read a lot about caste. Caste is typically understood to be the characteristic social order of India and its neighbours. Debates about what makes it what it is abound. Researchers and theorists approach it from various angles: sociological, historical, political, economic, religious.
My study on the city of Lalitpur in Nepal was largely a sociological one depending heavily on my ethnographic methodology. I did, however, do a fair bit of historical investigation, by delving into the way groups had evolved over the centuries. I was disappointed that my publisher, Orchid Press, decided to entitle my work Caste and Kinship in a Modern Hindu Society because much of what I discovered was of more historical interest. Indeed, I argued that the ritual complex of the city told us a lot about how the city wasin days gone by, rather than what it is today. (Orchid Press, by the way, has not responded to any of my attempts at communication since the book was published and I have never received a single penny in royalties.) 
In Beyond Caste, Sumit Guha delves assiduously into previously unresearched historical material and interacts with nearly all the significant literature (though not all – see below). Replete in historical and geographical detail, it is a piece of serious scholarship that deserves careful reading. I will not attempt a thorough review here but merely state Guha’s thesis, note some significant historical facts that were new to me, and make some brief comments. (For a more comprehensive review please see that of H. L. Richard here. I was given a copy of the South Asian edition. The European and American editions are a ridiculous price.)
Guha argues that a caste is a “bounded social group demarcated by the exercise of power throughout its millennial history” (252). He reminds us that, in the study of caste, the exotic has often been highlighted over aspects that are shared with other social systems. In this way, then, caste became an Orientalist trope, as did so many other aspects of Hindu culture. Guha’s point is to demonstrate that “the bounded, status-ranked ethnic community or ‘caste’ is a social form that frequently appears in multi-ethnic societies” (3).
It is not that it is exactly like that of other societies because “in South Asia it became a highly involuted, politicised form of ethnic ranking shaped by the constant exercise of socio-economic power.” And that encapsulates Guha’s answer to the big question that emerges in all the good studies of caste: to what extent is caste in South Asia unique? In my study, I argue that caste is indeed unique because of the creative tension that arises from the competing demands of centralizing kingship and decentralizing kinship, but more on that below.
One of the strengths of Guha’s study is its historical approach, focussing as it does on “dynamic social processes” (6). But it is also valuable because he does not focus on the development of caste in just one part of India. He demonstrates, rather, how social processes have gone on in different parts of the subcontinent at different rates, are often not completed, and often set in reverse; he eschews an evolutionist theoretical position which deems certain systems as necessarily primitive.
In all the vicissitudes of history, however, “the bounded ethnic group remained and remains a powerful presence” (7).
Guha, rightly, after Nicholas Dirks and Susan Bayly, argues that caste is not a product of a single ‘Hindu’ ideology. I also argued that caste is structural rather than ideological. Rather, says Guha, power is the all-important ingredient.
Guha argues that castes are a sort of tribe, by which he means “large, stratified, socio-political organizations characterized by diffuse authority and collective leadership such as, for example, a council of important chiefs” (71). He says that such “identity-centred and geographically bounded communities” were “the domains in which ethnic politics was formed” and that this gives us a “deeper appreciation of how indigenous states in India grew out of and reproduced the lasting structures of inequality so inadequately captured by what has been called the ‘caste system’” (99).
Kinship is far from the fixed, bounded unit of social organization that we often see portrayed in the literature: “kinship and exclusion from the kin were both socially constructed statuses, and a person could move from one to the other in the course of a lifetime” (150). And yet, as my research seems to suggest, there are times when kinship groups do indeed attempt to maintain a tighter boundary. 
How did caste develop under British rule? Guha reports how important the colonial administration of British India was in the formation of South Asian identities. Bernard Cohn and Nicholas Dirks, he reports, “argued that colonialism was more than a system of power: it was also a mode of knowing that constructed its objects of knowledge” 174). The colonial administration created a significant apparatus to classify and count all the peoples in its domain. Sometimes administrators visited a region and, working with local Brahman literati, as in the Bombay Presidency at the beginning of the nineteenth century, “simply divided the people into Muslims and Hindus, and the latter into Brahman, Rajput, ‘Shoodruh’ or Maratha, and Ati-Shudra or outcastes” (201), masking and distorting a much more complex reality on the ground. Interestingly, twenty years later, in the mid-nineteenth century a change had occurred, with the “basic ordering seems to have been religious (201). This would seem to correlate with the developing notions of religion in the emerging paradigm of ‘world religions’.
After the great anti-colonial uprising of 1857-8 the notion of race became a significant category in a way it had not been hitherto (203). And this was a surprise to me: by the late eighteenth century, “It was the political value of this sense of European-born identity that…led the [East India] Company to assiduously limit the development of a local power elite with any genealogical depth. It also caused the Company to discourage the immigration of non-official Englishmen into India. All this was designed…to pre-empt any local claim to the ‘rights of Englishmen’ that had just been forcefully raised in North America. The disavowed India-born offspring formed a socially inferior class of Eurasians, excluded from power” (218). In order to encourage English officials to return to Britain once their term of service was complete, Lord Cornwallis, the then Governor-General of India, sanctioned a large pay increase, allowing them to return at middle age with a substantial nest egg.
Returning to his main point, Guha tells us to “abandon the futile search for a social essence” because “social structures, old and new, have been politically ordered in ways that we cannot grasp unless we deploy the concept of caste as a bounded corporate body shaped by socio-political power throughout its long history” (255).
I have a few quibbles with Guha’s analysis.

Firstly, I think he makes too much of ranking. That is, he seems to follow the standard idea that all the castes in a society are in a clear hierarchy relative to each other. He quotes Weber: “A status segregation grown into a ‘caste’ differs in its structure from a more ‘ethnic’ segregation: the caste structure transforms the horizontal and unconnected coexistences of ethnically segregated groups into a vertical social system of super- and subordination” (13).

As I demonstrated in my work, with the exception of Dalits (those formerly known to others as Untouchables) and, to a lesser extent, other impure, but not untouchable castes, such as Butchers, those vertical relations are often contested and indeterminate because of no ritual intercaste relations. Guha does acknowledge, at least, that ethnic boundaries are porous.

Secondly, although Guha examines caste throughout traditional India (including the territories now Pakistan and Bangladesh), dividing it helpfully into five regions, and makes several references to caste in Sri Lanka, he barely mentions Nepal. In a sense Nepal is little different from other parts of the subcontinent, especially in the old Mithila kingdoms of the southern plains (Tarai). But the Newar former kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley – Kathmandu, Lalitpur (Patan), and Bhaktapur – are particularly significant exemplars of archaic caste systems because the Nepal Valley was never under Mughal or British rule.

Although he does indeed discuss the phenomenon of kingship, and interacts with Dirks and A. M. Hocart, he doesn’t even reference Declan Quigley’s important theoretical work, The Interpretation of Caste. Thus, in my opinion, kingship and the city are not given their due.
Has Guha’s study led me to change my view of caste? Not a lot. But it has broadened it. Guha’s careful elucidation of the ongoing centrality of power in the development of caste society is convincing. In so arguing, Guha is stating that caste is not unique but is, rather, a South Asian example of political realities found in every society, but in a way that previous materialist writers had not managed.
However, Guha makes no mention at all of the ‘climax communities’ of the Kathmandu Valley. I think that is a failing. In so doing he misses the centrality of kingship in those societies. But his central thesis is solid, and I now think such cities must be regarded not as the apex of caste society but as perhaps caste's most complex instantiation.

There are missiological implications to this analysis, but more on that later.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Review Article: Outside In

Margins of Islam: Ministry in Diverse Muslim Contexts

Edited by Gene Daniels and Warrick Farah (Pasadena: William Carey), 2018, 240pp, £12.30 (Amazon), £7.66 (Kindle)
I was in Indonesia last year, teaching in a couple of seminaries.[1] That vast archipelago constitutes the most populous Muslim-majority nation on Earth. Just a few months earlier, the country was shocked when radical Islamists (from one family as it happens) killed thirteen worshippers at Easter services in the city of Surabaya.[2] That violent extremism seemed far away from the folk I met there, such as the middle-aged hijabi who sat next to me on the long train journey across the island and offered me a share of her snacks. I also met the leader of a movement of people, outside mainstream evangelicalism, who meet regularly in small groups to read the Bible and worship Jesus. After twenty years, the movement’s leaders reckon their numbers have now reached six figures. The key feature of these vignettes for our purposes is that all these people would identify as Muslims.
Since then, I have met a number of Muslims as I have visited universities around the UK. Let me introduce some of them to you: the young Mancunian woman in her hijab, the mature Iranian man who dare not go home for fear of the state, the Algerian researcher trying to make sense of the modern world, the Egyptian postgraduate student who asked me why Christians are so private about their religion, and the young Saudi woman who told me she had rejected Wahabi Islam when she saw what IS was doing.
What staggering diversity. How do we make sense of Islam in a world of such variety? What, after all, is Islam? Is it a religion or a way of life or something else? 
This book is a major contribution to understanding Islam and ministry to Muslims. Read more here.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Winter into Spring VIII: Muslims

In both Newcastle and Dundee, especially the latter, the events were attended by a number of Muslim students. I was struck by the diversity in this ‘community’. There was the British young lady in her hijab, the mature Iranian man who can’t go back home for fear of the state, the Egyptian post-graduate student who asked me why Christians are so reticent to be public about their religion, the young lady from a very tightly-controlled country who told me she had rejected the Wahabi interpretation of Islam when she saw what IS was doing, and the Arab student who identified as an atheist (more about him later).
Those that attended events listened respectfully and were happy to discuss the issues that arose. There were no heated arguments, no verbal attacks. On first entering the marquee they were perhaps a little uncomfortable, wondering, probably, if they were allowed. But a welcome by a student or CU guest soon put them at ease.
One leader of the Islamic Soc. in Newcastle attended a lunch bar and asked me a load of questions about the logistics of the venue, etc.: he was getting ideas for their own events week!
Another male student, from Pakistan, came during the morning slack time when the marquee was open for coffee. We had a respectful and frank exchange of views and I gave him my email if he should want to contact me later. I received an email a few weeks later apologising if he had given offence (he had not) and said he would come back to me with more questions.
The high point from the point of view of witness to Muslims, was the dialogue between an Imam and a Pastor in Dundee. Imam Jabil, a local mosque leader, shared the stage with Duncan Peters from Glasgow, with the two-hour event ably chaired by a retired Dundee lecturer. The chair had made a list of questions which he asked in turn, with each man having three minutes to answer each question. At the end, questions were fielded from the floor, with the whole event lasting two hours.
About 15 Muslim students attended as well as around the same number of CU members and a few of us others. The Arab atheist stood at the back nearly the whole time (arriving slightly late). He was clearly flabbergasted at what he was witnessing – a friendly sharing of views. He asked me who had organised the event. Afterwards he stayed to talk, not giving too much away but telling me he was unimpressed by the answers the Imam was making.
I thought this event was a modest success. The big gain for the CU is that it provided an environment for building relationships and in which the sharing of the gospel was entirely natural. It was important for those of us who organised this that the event should not be a debate but a dialogue. The former can sometimes cause people to feel threatened, leading them to become defensive and combative. Here no one felt under attack; all were happy to talk afterwards. Duncan’s fresh translation of Luke’s Gospel – Holy Injil: Luke– was available for people to take afterwards. A number of the Muslims who attended came back for subsequent events.
It would be great to see such events put on in universities throughout Europe, especially where there are a significant number of Muslim students. We need to help students to create concrete ways in which they can show love to their classmates, and in which the truth of the person of Jesus and his saving work can be shared respectfully and humanely.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Winter into Spring VII: Hindus


I got to share the gospel with a number of Hindus in all four locations I visited over the past few months. Nearly all were international students.
in Dundee a group of post-graduate students from India joined us for dinner one evening. It was hard to discern if they had anything more than a passing interest in what was going on. They asked intelligent questions and listened respectfully. There was a marked ignorance (I don’t mean that pejoratively) among the group, of our message. One asked me, “You know there are three types of Christianity?” I asked him what he meant, and he replied, “You know, those who worship Jesus, those who worship Mary, and those who worship Satan”! Some serious groundwork needed there. These were intelligent young men but with very little awareness of who Jesus is or what he has done. (On a side note, I just about managed to prevent them from eating the beef – ‘Cottage Pie’ could be anything to the uninitiated. Thankfully there was a vegetarian option.)
Two Hindus stood out for me. One was a young lady in Aber who had migrated from Nepal in her mid-teens. She had heard of Yeshu in Nepal and thought it must be a foreign god. She was astonished when I told her that the Jesus who we talk about here is the same person!
I had the joy of interacting with one recent Indian graduate in Utrecht. He had been involved in a Globe Café and was reading John Uncovered with his new friends. We talked seriously until it was time to leave. His first question to me after hearing Lindsay speak on ‘Why Bother with Jesus’ was this: If this is true what does it mean for the Indian villager who has never heard? Wow! This was no smug attempt to humiliate me – he was probably thinking of his grandmother. I told him how we all alike are held responsible for the way we have handled the light we have received and that we can only be saved by conscious faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. His reaction was to say something along the lines that, if that is the case, people need to get the message out. Indeed.

I wrote a piece on Sharing Jesus with Hindu Friends for bethinking here.



Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Winter into Spring VI: Roman Catholics


As last year, I had some very good conversations with students (and one tutor) who are practising Roman Catholics. One, an African student, had never heard an evangelical explanation of the cross of Christ. She came back later in the week and showed me how her Bible readings have taken on a new freshness – I had directed her to Romans and Hebrews. She is now in a follow-up group. The tutor told me frankly that he had been going to church his whole life, his friends had now all given up, and he was seriously wondering if it was all worth it.
The way I approach Roman Catholics is this: I tell them they have a great tradition – the Creeds and Councils of early Christianity. But traditions are always mixed because the people who develop them are not pure in their motives and make mistakes. So, we need something that is not dependent on the tradition to critique it and correct it. That’s the Bible, that has come to us from God himself and therefore should be respected as the ultimate authority. And we go from there. Not all will buy it – one graduate I talked with in Newcastle was sufficiently astute to realise my argument didn’t fit with official dogma and would not countenance going any further with it. But he kept coming along to the lunch bars, as he has done for years.
Any thoughtful Roman Catholic will have loads of questions that follow. If they have understood the argument for the authority of the Bible (even if they haven’t yet come to agree with it) they will be happy to hear how the Bible answers those questions.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Winter into Spring V: sub-Saharan Africans


In most of the universities I met a few students either from Africa itself or of African heritage. I will mention some under Islam and Roman Catholicism but here want to point out an African group of which we need to be aware – those who are scarred by the prosperity gospel. This is, of course, no gospel at all but a false teaching. In its milder forms it is repeated by poorly trained pastors who are simply not reading their Bibles carefully, leading to disappointment and disenchantment. In its extreme forms it can involve serious child abuse and even murder. In between are a host of different churches and denominations, many of which have a presence in the UK. Young people are coming to university in the UK from a background that is heavily impacted by such groups. 
On the one hand there will be those, like a young lady I met before in Leeds, who are sceptical of the claims of the gospel because they have never had their questions answered. Prosperity preachers confuse the gospel with material success and seem to have no inclination to engage with the difficult questions that are pressing to their young people – sexuality, climate change, work. 
On the other hand, there will be those, like a young man I met in Newcastle, who have been badly burned by their experience of church. Jim, I will call him, recounted how he had gone with his mother to a big event at the O2 Arena as a child and been thoroughly turned off by the obvious fraud that was going on – fake healing etc. He now considered himself an agnostic.
So young people from such backgrounds arrive at university with a shaky faith (if any) and a tenuous attachment to church. Reaching out to such students in their early days is vital if they are not going to be lost altogether.
Even still, however, events weeks will pull some along. They will listen. They will ask questions. Are we sufficiently aware of these folk and ready to handle them sensitively?

Friday, April 12, 2019

Winter into Spring IV: Chinese

As I pointed out yesterday, a number of CUs are actively seeking ways to engage international students in their events weeks. It is a joy for me to have been involved invited to help out with this. It is a great opportunity to share the gospel with such students while they are studying here. If they come to faith in Christ, then they get to take the Lord Jesus back with them to their families and friends. Friends International have staff workers in many towns and cities across the country supporting CUs and local churches in this ministry.
I have said before that CUs are doing so well in reaching out to sceptical British students, with their persuasive evangelistic approach. And many are putting a lot of effort into hospitality, especially in efforts to reach international students.
There are large numbers of students getting missed out, though, including British students from other religious traditions and internationals who have a strong sense of attachment to their own tradition. We need to be looking for ways to engage these folk as well as learning ways to be more sensitive to their heritage.
In the following blog posts, I will address ministry to such students grouped into the following categories: non-Muslim Africans, Roman Catholics, Hindus, and Muslims. But here I will start with a few words about the Chinese. A word of caution: this is all anecdotal; I have had little experience of this ministry compared with others. These are my observations and reflections only, not a thoroughgoing analysis.
In recent decades, in the West, there has been a significant movement of Chinese students to Christ, matching the great movement of Chinese more generally back home. I remember leading an Uncover John study with a tableful of Chinese students in Durham four years ago. They were so eager and so quick to pick up what we were sharing with them. I wonder if that window of blessing is closing now. I met many Chinese students on campuses over the past few months. In Dundee especially, I handed out hundreds of flyers to students from mainland China. But very few came along to events. Nothing wrong with the flyers – they were well-designed, and the information was clear. But there seemed to be a hardness I have not encountered before. Is it busyness? Surely that has always been the case. Could it be that the increasing hardness of the regime against the church in China is galvanising opposition against the gospel more generally? What about the Orwellian social credit system? Is that causing students to keep their heads down even when they are off camera and in another country? This is worthy of more research.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Winter into Spring III: Food


One topic in student ministry worth thinking about more is food – the great mark of hospitality. What better way is there to demonstrate love in a tangible way to our guests? A proper hot meal is characteristic of all the best events I have been involved in recently. Take the Aberystwyth CU special Globe Café, for example. Aber CU has a thriving Globe Café on Thursday evenings throughout the year, run by the students. This has become so fruitful that the CU has given over one of their regular CU meetings on Monday nights to a special Globe Café (without cancelling the Thursday event). I visited them for their Chinese New Year celebration. A big help for them is a post-doc Chinese student who is a great cook. Food was hot, tasty, and plentiful. The room was packed with Globe Café regulars and other CU members as well as some who had never been before.
In Dundee, the students put on an International Meal at 6 o’clock each evening in the marquee. As at Aber, hot food was served and much appreciated. This was cooked by local church members and brought over just in time for the meal. Sometimes the quantity was insufficient because more students turned up than expected. But it was good food. The talks given by me were short. My intention was to make international guests feel welcome and to pique interest in the main event to follow, rather than make it self-contained. I think this worked well. We also had an interview on two evenings, though I thought they were a mixed bag.
In Newcastle, the CU set their sights higher still, with the plan to feed everyone at the main evening event – a tall order when up to 100 were jammed into the marquee. They faced a big obstacle as well: having a marquee provided by the Students Union, they were obliged to follow their dictates, which were only to use the SU’s regular caterers. The upshot of this was cold food served in boxes. The students worked very hard to make a go of this and the food was certainly acceptable, but it lacked the welcoming warmth and smell of a hot meal.
The Newcastle CU pushed the boat out further by adding an ‘International Track’. It is great to give international students an invitation to events specially for them – part of what it means for the church in the UK to welcome the stranger in our midst (Lev 19:34). The arrangements for the main event, however, meant that canapés and squash from 5pm in a different building off-campus was not much of a draw. One who did come, though, – and from a different religious tradition – went on to attend other events and signed up for the follow-up course, so there was fruit even from this.
On the first evening, some of us skipped the main event in the marquee and popped over to a local church, where their weekly Globe Café was going on, with maybe 150 present – a mix of international students and church folk. This is a thriving regular work that feeds into a number of other activities during the week, including English classes and discovery Bible studies. It seems to me that some joined up thinking needs to go on here: would it not be better if the events week started on the Tuesday, with a big encouragement given at the Monday Globe Café, for international students to join in? As it was, the events week was scheduled to finish on Thursday because of other arrangements for the weekend. Clearly, cutting off the first evening event would have severely limited the effectiveness of the week. In hindsight, however, expecting international students to give up four hours of their evening was probably unrealistic. The Dundee model could be a great one for CUs to emulate.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Winter into Spring II: the Majority Student Community


Yesterday I took a general look at the student work I have been involved in. Now I want to reflect on the home student context, i.e. the majority student community in the places that I have visited. My perception is going to be biased towards those I spent more time with, i.e. those who showed more interest in what was going on. The British students that I talked with often seemed to sense both the supreme importance of the message and the cost involved in accepting it. I do not recall any conversation I had with a British student being flippant.
My perception of the students in the Netherlands, however, was not the same. Of course, my experience in Utrecht was short so I may be wrong, but my hunch is that it is harder to attract students to events there. Perhaps, then, Dutch students are lagging behind their British counterparts. Not that they are further back – if anything it is the other way around – but they do not show the same interest. Perhaps because there is more nominal Christianity there still. 
I would characterise many of the British students I met as ignorant, curious, reserved, and longing. Let me explain.
Many students at our universities have never heard a presentation of the claims of the gospel before. A core goal of the events weeks is to inform those who are ignorant. There can be no commitment to Christ if there is almost no knowledge of who he claimed to be. I had nearly an hour with a young man from a bicultural background who knew very little indeed and asked lots of thoughtful questions. Some may be tempted to dumb down their answers to such questions. But if someone asks penetrating questions about the Trinity it is important to be able to answer that question and show from the Bible where such an idea comes from.
Ignorance is matched by curiosity. Students see the marquee and wonder what it is that drives some of their peers to want to be so public about their beliefs. So many of them want to visit to find out more. But their curiosity is tempered by a reserve. I think there is a real fear of rejection or at least embarrassment. That can be overcome through personal contact: it is best if someone they know invites them along, but even being given a flyer by a friendly stranger can be a significant moment.
The CU member in charge of flyers this year at Dundee was far from God a year ago. Someone handed him a flyer, he stuffed it in his pocket, and went on a night out. In the early hours, walking back to his room and realising the hollowness of having just slept with a woman whose name he didn’t even know, he came across the flyer, found his way to an event the next day, and came to Christ.
That is unusual. Most of those who profess faith do so in the weeks and months following the events. It takes time to learn even the basics, when you are starting so far back. The follow up arrangements, then, are vital; groups to look further at Uncover John or Mark, for example, seem to be just right for many who have started on a journey to faith. As is also the offer to be taken to church, especially on the Sunday following. It is important, therefore, that every effort must be taken to ensure that the CU doesn’t take off for a weekend away immediately following the week. I know it is difficult in some situations to avoid this, but it is such an important time for continuity of witness.
I think there is also a longingin many for the message of Jesus to be real. But what prevents a student from immediate acceptance of the message, when it is presented so cogently and winsomely? Could it be that so many of our young people have had their hopes dashed too many times already? Is it the pain of family breakdown, or the broken promises of a friend, or the dispiriting effects of a lifetime of social media? For the most part I have not found the students attending events to be hard-nosed cynics. They are sceptical, to be sure, but not in a bad way. They throw out questions, but my impression is that these are not usually with the goal of tripping someone up.