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Saturday, 21 May 2016

Writing with Purpose or Glorifying Sin?

I have been reading a lot of contemporary Christian biographies recently and noticed an increasingly common trait among authors who have dramatic conversion testimonies; "I once lived like this, then I met Jesus....." But what are the intentions and motivations of these authors and how much detail should be placed in the public domain? How do non-believers respond to these stories and are they an effective evangelistic witness? Are we as Christians reading with a discerning mind or allowing our minds to be corrupted when reading these stories thinking that it is okay as the person was saved later down the line? How much detail is healthy for us to absorb?

This subject has been on my heart for a while having written my own Christian Biography "Planet Police" and prior to publication, editing various sensitive details and stories that I felt were too personal to be included. Now, I am glad that I did this as the issue of repeatedly thinking about, writing about or glorifying a past lifestyle of sin has emerged as a current worrying trend. It has always been around in a more diluted manner; "The Cross and the Switchblade" and other similar books, but the levels of depravity and details included have definitely increased over the years and God's primary role is beginning to take a back-seat. I recall in my Christian past having often relayed a humorous event from my back-slidden days in the world, but eventually I felt convicted about my attitude and realised that someone seeking to live a new life in Christ should feel a healthy sense of regret/remorse over their sin and would not therefore wish to dwell on it, especially in the presence of non-believers and definitely not as an entertainment piece.

Is there an exception? I believe that there can be, and that it is often about the purpose of the author when writing. I recently read "Girl in the Song: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Lost Her Way--and the Miracle That Led Her Home" giving it a positive rating. I felt this was a good example of a young author using her past sinful experiences to discourage others from taking the same path. God's grace was evident throughout the book and the author made it clear that her actions were sinful and described the awful consequences in enough detail for the reader to receive the warning without stirring curiosity/planting a seed of temptation causing them to stumble. One of the ways she did this was by including that she fell into sexual sin but without going into detail about it. She humbled herself through her very personal story and demonstrated a life transformed by the grace of God.

I also read "A New Name: Grace and Healing for Anorexia" by an author who struggled with anorexia that nearly destroyed her life, and continues to have an impact on her health. This was an example of the middle ground; I admired the honesty and vulnerability shown through the writing but at times I felt the author gave too much personal detail. I believe the intention of the author was to help others experiencing similar problems but maybe due to her personality she also wanted her story to be in the public domain for other reasons. I worried about the level of exposure for the author and her family especially as she continued her struggles after being saved by God.  I didn't feel that the author was glorifying sin with this book or that others would be tempted to sin by reading about it as she made it clear that it was an horrific path to take with terrible physical, mental and emotional consequences.

This blog post, however, will focus on the book "Street God: The Explosive True Story of a Former Drug Boss on the Run from the Hood--and the Courageous Mission That Drove Him Back" by Dimas Salaberrios that I have just concluded. The author began his story at childhood and described his very early descent, at the age of 11, into using and selling drugs. His ultimate dream/ambition was to become a "street god" and thereby rule over his drug dealing empire, he wished to experience the glamour of a drug funded lifestyle of fast cars, lavish events and beautiful women. But initially he ended up in prison....

Two thirds of the book were dedicated to his life of crime including gruesome details of numerous gang homicides. He described various characters using their "street names" and gave many details about their drug-dealing activities. He even described shooting someone in the head and only getting away with it because the gun jammed. He eventually descended into madness after achieving his dream of reaching the "top dog" position on his block. I am not going to go into more detail about his exploits as it may defeat the purpose of writing about this! Needless to say they are shocking and will definitely disturb some readers.

He is apparently "saved" when three women cast a demon out of him (he had been cursed by a witch.) I couldn't tell you whether his initial conversion was genuine (only God knows his heart) but his persistence in the Christian faith seemed to prove it later on and he is still in Christian ministry today according to his website.  After his experience he rushed from one church project to another, probably due to the excitement and the freedom generated by his new-found faith. At first he attended a church which later turned out to be a cult, he fell back into sin with a girl from this church. Then he attended a church where the Pastor was apparently having an affair with his secretary, so he left this one. Finally he ended up leading a Christian youth ministry and smuggling Bibles to a foreign country after being led to do this by a prophetic word....this all within months of his conversion.

He continued selling "pot" for a long time after his conversion believing that it was okay as it was a natural drug. He used the drug money to support various church projects leading to stage announcements about the sudden increase in church giving and the difference it was making in their community. Eventually he was confronted about this and stopped doing it. He also handed himself in to the police having been on the run for various serious crimes for a long time; he was released without penalty by a judge due to his changed life. I found this aspect hard to believe and felt it may teach people that serious sin has no earthly consequence.

His dream changed from being a drug lord to being head of a large Christian organisation. He became convinced that God was going to use him in "big and mighty ways" to reach many people. He didn't want to be part of anything small. He commented frequently on numbers of people making "decisions for Christ" in his meetings. In the middle of this he heard a message suggesting that men who may have children that they have not taken responsibility for should immediately get them DNA tested, he did this and discovered a 6 year old child living with her mother and siblings. He rushed to the location, believing that taking responsibility meant that the little girl should now live with him away from her mother and siblings. This was arranged and she lived with him for a few years, later returning to her mother....

He ended up becoming a figurehead and taking centre stage in an attempt to stop the government from ending the use of schools and community centres for church meetings. This was partially successful although he went on an extended hunger strike/fast during this process and nearly died (by this point he had a wife and children.) He was placed in leadership roles very early in his ministry by respected evangelical names eg Tim Keller. It seemed that he transferred his desire for power, a big name and a stage from the drug world to the church and others helped and encouraged him to do this. His life after conversion read as a helter-skelter of crazy events and rash decisions, it made me feel stressed just reading about it!

I found myself becoming more and more incredulous as I read his story and more and more concerned about those who were endorsing and contributing financially to his ministry. I can't comment on whether or not he matured after the events described in this book but as it was only published last year it seems unlikely to have happened yet. I'm also not going to comment on whether or not everything described is true; although during my research I came across an angry article written by one of his former street friends alleging that he had made a lot of this story up and that he had committed more serious undetected crime. His account always seemed to make him the "winner" of every fight and the "hero" in every situation.

This man seems to be a bit of a loose cannon, at times, even after his conversion, behaving recklessly. The initial story about his drug ventures was told with pride and in an arrogant fashion which didn't seem to improve significantly after he was converted; Once married he comments on his visit to a local prison that he was being "checked out" by the women who were not used to seeing a "good looking" man.  He included shockingly gruesome details in his book that could effect the minds of his readers and/or tempt them to sin. As Christians we should each determine whether or not we should be reading books containing gratuitous violence, drug taking, sexual content or bad language (although the latter doesn't appear in this book,) but the author also bears the responsibility for making this material available.

I was also concerned about the details he gave about the sin of others (the Pastor) and the various unhelpful church experiences he had. Why include these in a book? His stories are probably true but present the American church as disunited and in disarray internally which just assists the enemy who also wants to portray that image to those seeking the truth. I'm not suggesting a hypocritical display of purity to the outside world but some of these aspects should not be in the public domain and I cannot see that the author has gained anything by including them, apart from the shock/entertainment value.

What of unbelievers? This book may well appeal to teenagers aspiring to be gang members/leaders and they may realise that with a bit of work it is indeed possible. He described drug taking/dealing in enough detail to enable one to easily use this knowledge on the street, it could even be referred to as a "manual" for this type of activity. I believe he did this to show-off his knowledge without regard for the welfare of his readers. Later he dominated the Christian scene in the same way that he had dominated on the street.

What to make of this? I come back to my original concerns and question the wisdom of the author in writing a book like this. The author's testimony and personal walk with God were lost somewhere in the middle of his dramatic attempts to do "big things for God." We could all be in danger of this especially during the excitement of the first years after conversion when everything is new and different, but writing about it in this way seems to glorify sin in an unacceptable manner. I hope this author does feel healthy regret about his past life, those he injured and the offence it caused to a Holy God, it didn't come across in his book. I'm not suggesting that we cannot move on from our past sin or that Jesus' death was in any way insufficient to cover it. We know that God sees us as righteous in His sight and we are cleansed, renewed and start afresh with a new life as born-again believers. But part of that process is to feel remorse and to repent which would not include highlighting our error in a way that draws attention to our sin.

Our purpose in writing could be to discourage (warn) others from committing sins that we have fallen into; to allow them to learn from our mistakes, but with a personal testimony it should always also be to demonstrate God's grace in our lives through the transformation that has occurred. Our stories will only be an effective evangelistic witness if there is true transformation, a complete break from the old life and it is clear that God is the new centre of our lives. These motivations should shine through our writing and the reader should get the distinct impression that God is the true author of our personal stories and has brought these amazing events about. Our testimonies are not about us or about glorifying our sin, they are about God and His miraculous power to transform us even when we have sinned grievously in His sight.

Praise God for Jesus who has power over sin (and death!)

Psalm 96 vs 1-9

"Sing to the LORD a new song; Sing to the LORD, all the earth. Sing to the LORD, bless His name; Proclaim good tidings of His salvation from day to day. Tell of His glory among the nations, His wonderful deeds among all the peoples. For great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, But the LORD made the heavens. Splendor and majesty are before Him, Strength and beauty are in His sanctuary. Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. Ascribe to the LORD the glory of His name; Bring an offering and come into His courts. Worship the LORD in holy attire; Tremble before Him, all the earth."

Psalm 115:1

"Not to us, O LORD, not to us, But to Your name give glory Because of Your lovingkindness, because of Your truth."

John 17:4

"I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do."

Psalm 99:9

"Exalt the LORD our God And worship at His holy hill, For holy is the LORD our God."

Psalm 86:8-10

"There is no one like You among the gods, O Lord, Nor are there any works like Yours. All nations whom You have made shall come and worship before You, O Lord, And they shall glorify Your name. For You are great and do wondrous deeds; You alone are God."

2 Corinthians 4:13-15

"But having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, "I BELIEVED, THEREFORE I SPOKE," we also believe, therefore we also speak, knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God."

1 Peter 4:11

"Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen."

1 Corinthians 10:31

"Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God."

Matthew 5:16

"Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven."

1 Peter 2:12

Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.

Philippians 4:8

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Contextualising for the Culture or Changing the Gospel?

This is a subject that I had not really considered before. I was recommended two books by Don Richardson;Peace Child  and Lords of the Earth" (via this blog post.)  Almost by coincidence I then picked up Bruchko. I realised at the conclusion that all three books have the same central theme running throughout; using cultural analogies/context to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ among primitive tribal people groups. I decided as a fellow missionary that this approach was worthy of further examination.

I have already reviewed "Peace Child" and "Lords of the Earth." I enjoyed both books immensely and although some people might be disturbed by the rampant violence/cannibalism in the initial chapters, I felt that this may have been necessary to demonstrate the total transformation that came about when these people found Jesus. In both of these books the missionaries set about learning the tribal languages immediately, they were heart-broken every-time someone died without the Gospel as they felt the weight of the responsibility to communicate it before it was too late for others. This, I believe, is a natural human emotion for a missionary who already has a heart for the lost. Missionaries know that God is in control, that He will save those whom He has elected and that He understands the frustrations of learning languages/cultural barriers etc, but it doesn't change the pain of losing someone to a lost eternity.

Again in both of these books, the missionaries conformed to the culture as much as possible; they lived and worked among the people, they led simple non-material lifestyles, they learned the languages and behaviours, they studied the tribal history and culture, they ate some tribal food. They couldn't really dress like the natives who wore very little but had it been necessary to communicate the Gospel I believe they would have found ways to work around this. They also needed to continue to eat some Western food in order to remain healthy as their bodies were just not used to the local delicacies.

However, the missionaries always made a distinction when things that were cultural became unbiblical. They did not compromise the integrity of the Gospel in order to blend in with the culture even if it meant losing some of the relationships they had nurtured. This created some difficult situations, even showdowns, especially in relation to sickness when the people had their own methods via their spirits and the missionaries would only help them in the name of God, they knew that these people might die if they didn't receive easily administerable medicines, but they did not utilise the cultural methods knowing this would confuse the Gospel in the minds of the people. It might also strengthen the bonds of the people with their spirits if they weren't clear where the power had actually come from. Other situations also called for the missionaries to reject cultural practices in favour of biblical ones.

In both books the cultural analogies were used to assist in effectively communicating the Gospel. In "Peace Child" the missionaries had come to a seemingly impossible barrier as the people on hearing the Gospel message believed Judas was a hero as friendship betrayal was honoured in their culture, the Peace Child analogy was necessary to correct this cultural misunderstanding. The missionaries found in both cases that there were cultural stories/traditions that could be used to enable the people to effectively understand the Gospel in terms that were culturally relevant. The Gospel message was still the same. The missionaries (or at least the author) believed that God had planted these "redemptive analogies" within these cultures to enable the later spread of the Gospel and he believed that similarities could be found hidden within every culture. This is certainly possible as God the Creator prepared works in advance for His servants to complete.

So what about Bruchko? Some readers may see little difference. Indeed there is little criticism of this book and many 4 and 5 star reviews. I found the stories almost unbelievable at times and it read like a work of fiction. Bruchko (Bruce Olson) is the story of a recently converted American missionary who set off into the jungles of Venezuela and Colombia to attempt to single-handedly evangelise the Motilone Indian's. He was immediately rejected by other Christian Missionaries due to the unorthodox way that he arrived in their midst; no mission board/organisation, no funding, no clear plan etc etc. The callous way in which he was allegedly treated seems hard to believe and I wonder if there was more to this story than what is relayed....

Anyway, Bruchko persevered making his way into the jungle whilst struggling with disease, depression and all manner of other things. He eventually found a tribal people and lived among them for a year, he learned their language. He then left them only to be twice returned after being bucked by his mule. He finally left for good and pursued his original goal of finding the Motilone Indian's who tried to kill him on his arrival unannounced and unaccompanied into their territory. He spent several years living among them learning the culture and the new tribal language. He did not even attempt to share the Gospel for a number of years believing that it would be misunderstood due to the culture. He waited until he saw a parallel (redemptive analogy) within the culture and then attempted to use this to share the Gospel. Later his focus seemed to be on medical/health/educational improvements and land development. He remained living and working among the people for over 30 years; many site this as evidence of his success and the fact that it is believed that 70% of the tribal people groups in this area are now "Christians." The Motilone Indian's began evangelising other tribes....

There were some details however in Bruchko that concerned me and I finished it feeling uncomfortable in a way that I hadn't on concluding the other two books. There were times when Olson's lack of preparedness made him a financial burden to others in a way that went beyond living by faith. He was often forced to go without food for days, even weeks, and became seriously ill and nearly died many times as a result. He was reliant on the kindness, generosity and goodwill of those that he ended up living among both in the city and in the jungle in a way that embarrassed him (and probably them.) Does God want His servants to end up in these situations?

There were a few occasions noted where he committed acts of civil (criminal?) disobedience that weren't directly related to sharing the Gospel. He was informed that he couldn't go to a certain area without a VISA but he went anyway disregarding this instruction. He later persuaded a friend to give/steal a substantial quantity of medicines from the stock belonging to the local oil company plant due to an outbreak of disease in his tribe.

By far the thing that I struggled with the most was his use of the local witch doctor to treat disease. Bruchko believed that the witch doctor was actually trying to harness the power of God and that she was just ignorant in her methods. She was regularly chanting over her patients. Bruchko deliberately infected himself with an illness (by transference of substance from a sick patient) in order to convince the witch doctor to use his medicine. This whole approach seemed to me to be taking cultural conformity too far and also to be heading for future confusion as to which god is truly being worshiped. This was especially true as he hadn't yet found a way to communicate the true Gospel so he was basically just keeping the people healthy because he had developed a heart for them.

Bruchko helped these people groups in many ways; he taught them basic sanitation and education, and later translated one of the Gospels and also Philippians into their language. He doesn't mention much about this other than to say that they had to adapt/change some stories to fit the culture e.g. the man who built his house on the sand (in Jesus' parable) became the wise man because culturally this helped the people understand the story. I was struck, on reading this relatively small detail, with the difference between how the missionaries handled this type of thing in the first two books I had read; when they faced an impossible cultural dilemma they didn't change the story but used the analogy to help the people understand the story. Maybe some would say this is pedantic but how many other stories were changed in the translation and how can we be sure God's original meaning remained intact? The Scriptures were inspired by God who knew all of the cultural issues that would arise. Should missionaries be changing Scripture like this?

Bruchko rarely mentions his devotional life; prayer or Bible study. At one stage he allows a tribal member to eat part of his (only?) Bible due to a misunderstanding of a redemptive analogy. He encourages the tribal custom of placing dead bodies high in the trees to be consumed by vultures and even states that this is how his body will be disposed of!

I was astonished by the very high numbers of conversions reported at the end of Bruchko. It seems that ALL of the tribe had become Christians at a meeting mentioned in the book and later evangelised other tribes. Whilst God is clearly capable of these types of miraculous mass conversions, I find these stories increasingly difficult to believe and I find myself questioning the depth of understanding of these people. This is especially true when I see little evidence of real spiritual struggle going on for their souls. Maybe the author just didn't mention this aspect. But it seemed to me that his focus was just as much or more on making friends and helping the people practically than it was on sharing the Gospel with them especially as he waited for so many years before attempting it, probably due to the offence that might be caused.

One of the striking things about the other two books is the immense spiritual struggles the missionaries encountered before even one conversion and the loss of life they endured. In Lords of the Earth a whole family was sacrificed in a plane crash which I'm sure seemed meaningless at the time but later enabled the Gospel to progress in a remarkable way. God's "ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts than our thoughts!"

In conclusion, no missionary is perfect; they will make many mistakes and hopefully learn from them. I'm sure that God used all of these missionaries and their various weaknesses to accomplish His purposes and bring good out of failure. They alone know how many of the stories relayed are true down to the last detail and God alone knows how many of these souls that have professed faith are truly born again.

We can learn lessons from reading these books. i believe that the use of redemptive analogies is a fascinating and effective way to assist these tribal people (and others) in understanding the Gospel message but ONLY if the analogy is a clear fit for the meaning that God originally intended. i don't believe God would have us change parts of the Bible to fit the cultural context in a way that changes the meaning. We need to be careful to ensure we don't allow culture to over-ride the Bible. When there is clear division, the Bible must always take precedence regardless of the cultural consequence.