Contend Earnestly: What Might A "Muslim" Gospel Culture Look LIke

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What Might A "Muslim" Gospel Culture Look LIke

Since I have been living in a Muslim culture for the last month, I started to think how would the gospel penetrate this place? It had surely penetrated this very culture 2000 years ago, certainly it could do it again. And I am positive that this is a job for the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, but the fact remains, we (The Church) are sent into the culture as Jesus was (John 20:21) to help penetrate every culture with the gospel of the kingdom of God (Mark 1:14, 15; Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:8); so what's it take? I have been "Contending" for a gospel that is shaped by the cultural language in order to clearly communicate the message of Jesus Christ. Others of course have vehemently argued that this is an anathema and a compromise of Gospel truth. I will continue to contend though, that every presentation of the gospel is shaped by the cultural paradigm of the messenger. This is why there was a similar vehement argument in the first century, and the reason Paul had to write such glorious works as Romans and Galatians; to correct error, define the gospel, and exhort the church to be gracious in these culturally different movements (Romans 14:13-20).

The Jewish believers struggled greatly with the gentile believers who didn't adhere to their "Religious" traditions (Even traditions commanded by God in scripture), but the gospel spread when it was ripped from Jewish control, and was formed in pagan centers of asia-minor, Rome, North Africa, etc. There is no doubt that some syncretism resulted, but if the gospel is going to continue to move outward, it needs to be released by those that feel they own it, and trust that the Holy Spirit is still on duty (John 16:7-15; 1 John 2:27-29; 1 Corinthians 2:15-16).

Today we face similar challenges from many inside the church who believe they are the gate keepers of "truth," and foist their own culture on the gospel in the guise of gospel purity making missions to those outside their culture nearly impossible. Just the other day I was reading where a man was criticizing Rick Warren for praying to a "Merciful and compassionate God," during a prayer breakfast, because that prayer was Muslim, and catered to Islam; and although he acknowledged (Thankfully) that our God is "Merciful and Compassionate" he said it did not represent the gospel well. This is utter ridiculousness.
Apart from apologetic sites trying to deny this reality, there are a plethora of verses in the bible that have been co-opted from pagan texts, and applied to Yahweh, the one true God. Like Psalm 29, which is clearly a Canaanite, or Phonecian ode to Baal. According to theologian H.L. Ginsberg, "This psalm is a Yahwistic adaptation of an older Canaanite hymn to the storm-god Baal...” has been “...corroborated by the subsequent discovery of tablets at Ras Shamra and by progress in the interpretation of these texts” (1966, 1:175). Paul himself indicates in Acts 17:28 that he quoted their poets when he wrote, "For in Him we live and move and exist...for we also are his offspring" (This was written at first about the pagan Greek god Zeus). If something is true, it is true no matter what the source is that says it, which should remind us that the culture's religions, and poets, and artists can and do speak the truth as they perceive it through general revelation. To this Calvin writes:

“In reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from the creator...Whenever we meet heathen writers, let us learn from the light of truth which is admirably displayed in their works, that the human mind, fallen as it is, and corrupted from its integrity, is yet invested and adorned by God with excellent talents. If we believe that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth itself, we shall not reject or despise the truth itself, wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to insult the Spirit of God.

It amazes me that many who are quick to quote Calvin, Luther, etc. don't seem to have the intellectual integrity to think like these men. If we continue to ride into culture with our arrogant, white hats to spew our learned doctrine at the poor pagans who know no truth, we will continue to alienate billions of people from the truth of the gospel, all in the name of "Purity!"

It is quite possible that the gospel that transforms Muslim culture is going to do it as it has in any other culture and era, by the power of the Spirit regenerating hearts to respond to Jesus, and then creating the "Church" (Ecclesia) in that culture that will borrow from the sublime in the culture while discarding the chaff.

I heard a story the other day of a Muslim woman who converted to be a follower of Isa Al-Masih (Jesus the Messiah) through a series of dreams she had, and as she was meeting with a local missionary for discipleship, the Muslim woman asked, "What should I think and do about Mohamed?" The missionary woman, thought about it and said nothing, just pray to God, and let Him tell you, so the woman went home and prayed, and had a dream where she saw Mohamed in a coffin, beautifully adorned, and looking restful, and the Muslim woman concluded that God was showing her that Jesus is alive and Mohamed is in the grave. Can we still trust the Spirit of God to defend Himself, and to teach His people (Whom He loves more than we do) the truth about Himself, or are we obligated in wiping out every vestige of culture in order to replace it with our own "learned" thinking? This just makes us 'Functional Saviors" guarding the gates of our tribal god who is too weak to fend for himself.

Maybe a Muslim cultural version of the new believer may include praying five times a day, celebrating Ramadan and giving of alms, etc. but with a renewed sense of grace leading the way. Most Christians celebrate Easter and Christmas, and it is clearly known that those celebrations were very pagan; yet that's ok, since it's what "Christians" do. The way toward penetrating the diverse cultures of this world is through their own cultural stories that align in pointing to the gospel, which is as C.S. Lewis says:

“Now as myth transcends thought, incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth, which is also fact (emphasis mine). The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from heaven of legend and imagination to earth of history. It happens-at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle."

Our gospel is the meta-narrative, the story of stories; the culmination of all stories which aim at the truth but fall a bit short because they lack the "Word of God" in the flesh, the direct revelation of the one true God, Jesus Christ. I pray that we work hard at presenting Jesus, and leaving the Christian religion where it belongs, in a history book.


Jake Meador said...

Pastor Gunn - Thanks for this. There's a Somali-owned grocery store a half mile from my house that I've been going to for about a month now and I've been trying to think of how to get to know the owner and this blog is giving me ideas. :)



SnatchedFromTheFire said...

Seth -
thanks for this post. How were you living in a Muslim culture? Where did you go? Love to hear more about that.
wow, i can't believe that attack on Warren's prayer - that's pretty weak. Has to be something going on there to react so strongly and foolishly to something so clearly true of God anyways!
Couple things i wanted to ask you about:
1: i agree to an extent about what you wrote about using truth from other cultures/people and the examples you quoted but, even with that Ginsberg quote, don't we have to be careful about equating what we do in contextualizing with what we see in the pages of Scripture? Maybe there are similarities in Pslam 29 to another poem and Paul does quote peots from Athenean culture but, let's remember, these authors were 'carried along by the Spirit' (II Pet. 1:20) and what we have in the Scriptures is inspired: what we do is not (at least not in the same way. Bottom line: i'd be careful about contextualizing and claiming "I'm just doing EXACTLY what Paul did in Acts!" - that may be true to an extent but ...
2: could you define for me what the gospel is for you? sometimes it feels like an interchangable term in this post. The gospel (say what we have given in I Cor. 15 "as of first importance") does not change from culture to culture - Christ's finished work on the cross for wicked rebels is not different for Muslims than it is for JEws or Americans right? I've always thought Driscoll had a helpful distinction in this when he said that the message never changes but HOW we communicate that can be quite varried: the whole message over methods idea. Just wonder how you're using the term when you write things like, "the gospel that transforms Muslim culture" - isn't that the same gospel that transformed our lives? Maybe presented TOTALLY differently, but still the same right?

Seth McBee said...

Great post and will be interesting to continually get your thoughts on this as you seek to build community in Muslim cultures.

I didn't write this post, Mike G. did. And...I don't get people who say we aren't supposed to emulate what Paul and Jesus did, as far as the principles. They both said, "imitate me." So, we might not quote a Poem for Baal to make a point, because that isn't the heart of the matter (think principle) but we might use whomever speaks into a culture and redeem their words for the good news. THAT'S WHAT PAUL DID, and that's what we are to imitate.

Yeah, the pages of Scripture are inspired, but only because of the Spirit. We have that same Spirit living within us, that lived within Paul...we are no different...none, zero.



Seth McBee said...

Invite him over for dinner...

mgunn said...

Hey men, great thoughts and questions!

I believe the gospel is "God's in-breaking into human culture in order to redeem it for His glory." And yes, I think that 1 Corinthians gives us a synopsis of first importance, but what Gospel was preached to Abraham (Galatians 3:8)? Or what Gospel did Jesus preach (Mark 1:14-15)? It appears the gospel includes Paul's synopsis, but has a larger scope that begins in Genesis 1 not chapter 3.

However, with that said, I agree with you, the actual gospel ("Good News" Story) is immutable, but the container in which it is preached is not. I liken the gospel to H2O, which keeps its chemical compound no matter what container it sits in.

It is hard put to find a "Normative" gospel presentation in the NT. There are times when we are clearly told to repent; others not, there are times when hands are laid on someone (Acts 8); others not. There are times someone is "Saved" touching the fringe of Jesus' cloak, but we never see that again.

God is free in Christ to pronounce someone righteous in the atoning work of the cross (See Romans 3:23-25; 1 Timothy 4:10). While the gospel message will always be Christ centered, it needs to be shaped and contextualized in order for the hearers to understand it, and that container will always change.

Also, I am not saying we use Muslim scripture (Or any non-inspired document for that matter) as scripture, but I think if the inspired gospel writers used "Uninspired" sources to proclaim truth, we certainly should do it for the same reasons. While Acts 17:28 was written by uninspired men, it was made inspired by the Holy Spirit, as Paul borrowed it from culture, because it was true, and could be used to His glory. I just agree with Calvin that we should never denigrate the truth, no matter the source, because when we do, we denigrate the Holy Spirit, the source of truth.

I agree with Seth, just invite them over for dinner, and listen to their story for awhile and then ask God to show you the best way to speak to them about Isa Al-Masih, and remember it's not your job to "Convert" anyone to your way of life; it is our job to faithfully point to the only one who can save, Jesus the Messiah!

SnatchedFromTheFire said...

Seth -
sorry bro - should have looked at the "posted by" part at the end. I didn't say "we aren't supposed to emulate what Paul and Jesus did, as far as the principles" - i said we need to be careful when we do so. I'd also be careful (just careful) in saying the Scriptures were inspired by the H.S. and we have the same Spirit that lived in Paul, so ... see where it could go? Next thing you'll see me in the news claiming i've written a new book of the Bible 'cause what i write is inspired by the same H.S. as Paul. I don't think you're saying that for the record, but, you get my point.
Mike -
thank YOU for this post and your reply as well. I think i see your point about Abraham and JEsus' "gospel" and surely, the redemptive work of Christ begins even before Gen. 1 if we take I Pet. 1:19-20 and Rev. 13:8 literally for example. We all need to be mindful of our "trigger points" however and i'm no different. I've seen so much water poured into, and pieces cut out of the gospel that the minute i hear "what gospel do we preach to these people?" my blood pressure goes up and i;m like, "ummm ... have you read Galatians?!? That book alone makes it pretty clear that there's just one!" but to be fair, that clearly was not where you were going. Truly, as long as the key elements are there the method of delivery is as varied as there are people. In one of my own posts on the subject ( i wrote "Think of it this way: if someone’s throat is swelling up from a bee sting and they say, ‘can’t I just take an aspirin or drink some water? Why is an EPI pen the only way - that’s so narrow!’, it is not loving to tell them they can just take the aspirin. Now how you get them to take that shot might vary from person to person, but the shot itself will save their life and, once given, it will do the work it is intended to do; it doesn’t need your help to work properly. Same thing with the Gospel.'
We know, as Paul says, that neither he who plant or waters is anything but only God who gives the growth. God grant us grace and wisdom to present Him to all and any He would place in our path in a winsome and understandable manner. amen.

mgunn said...

Thanks Wes, good points, and I agree we need to contend for the gospel truth, without adding to it, or subtracting from it in any way!

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