Friday, December 05, 2008

Contextualization as Worship Renewal

Throughout the twentieth century, America has undergone radical changes never before experienced in human history. Science and technology has made the impossible possible, as much of what is considered routine today would have been considered miraculous 100 years ago. In addition, America has been transformed into a pluralistic society by great waves of immigration that have introduced many new ideas and religions into The Land of the Free. America has also changed in the way it thinks and perceives reality and truth due to the influence of modernism and post-modernism. These changes represent but a small list of the many cultural changes that have greatly influenced the Christian church, especially in the area of liturgical worship.

While change is not new, it is helpful to realize that more change has occurred in the last six decades than in the last six centuries. Major cultural shifts and changes that used to take several generations are now sweeping the globe every few years. What is important to observe is how rapidly these cultural changes are affecting language and cultural symbols. The Church is not insulated from its culture, as if it operated in a “cultural vacuum;” liturgical worship is part of the surrounding culture for in order to function, it “must assimilate various components of the culture.” In this setting, culture means “the sum total of human values, of social and religious traditions and rituals, and the modes of expressions through language and the arts, all of which are rooted in the particular genius of the people.”

Humanly speaking, an effective liturgy is a liturgy that contains powerful cultural symbolism and language that is able to communicate the Gospel without detailed explanation. It is recognized that some liturgical catechesis is necessary for understanding liturgical worship. Nevertheless, the best liturgical symbols and rites are those that have strong cultural connections and resonate with cultural meaning. On the other hand, an ineffective or weak liturgy is one that relies upon distant symbols, or symbols that are foreign to the culture; the people cannot relate to it because its symbolism is divorced from their experience. Abstract symbolism, or symbols that must be intellectually comprehended and retained in order to function properly in worship is ineffective; it is distant from the people, therefore, it loses its capacity to effectively communicate the message.

Therefore, it is imperative for the Church to stay abreast of cultural changes. It needs to regularly examine how cultural changes are impacting the current liturgical worship of the congregation. Do people understand the liturgy, or are they just going through the motions? Is the symbolism clear, or does it require extensive explanation to be comprehended? Is it reaching the older youth and twenty something generation, who are perhaps the most impacted by cultural change? It is this process of relating the gospel to culture that is called contextualization. My argument comes from the liturgical movement and insights gained from church history that demonstrate how liturgical worship requires an ongoing contextualization in order to maintain accurate symbols that effectively communicate the Apostolic Faith. This is especially true now, as the rate of cultural change is accelerating.

Before continuing this discussion about contextualization and worship, it is important to understand the duality of liturgy. While liturgy consists of cultural symbols and human language, it is also an act of God. Peter Brunner wrote, “The human actions which fill the worship service from beginning to end are entirely dependent on the Triune God’s filling them with His action. . . [In worship, the Lord becomes present to His congregation only by man’s proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of Holy Communion in obedience to the command of institution.]” Recognizing God’s action in worship, the question towards the human action remains. What makes a good liturgy? What makes a liturgy “authentically Christian and culturally relevant.” What should guide this process?

A useful metaphor to better understand the contextualization and liturgy is a bridge. Liturgical worship functions as a bridge that connects the Word of God to a specific people group. The bridge connects to places, the Apostolic Faith and the local cultural setting. All liturgical bridges have one side that is immovable, the side that begins with the Apostolic Faith. The other side of the bridge will touch down into a specific cultural setting; there are actually many bridges since a different bridge is required for different cultures. Each bridge is built using building materials from inside the culture. The liturgy takes local languages and cultural symbols and creates a liturgical bridge that can bring the Apostolic faith into this new cultural setting. Not all words or cultural symbols are suitable for Christian worship. Contextualization is concerned that the construction of the bridge to ensure the liturgy produced is “authentically Christian and culturally relevant.” Research into the relationship between culture and worship has discovered that liturgical “worship relates dynamically to culture in at least four ways; they are transcultural, contextual, counter-cultural, and cross-cultural. Understanding each of these dynamics will greatly assist those involved in liturgical worship.

The transcultural elements of worship are foundational, and are above any specific culture; their source is scripture, whose author is God. While each language may contain different vocables, the Word of God communicates and introduces transcultural elements into specific, local cultures. The Lutheran World Federation produced a helpful statement that listed the transcultural elements of worship. A document called the Cartigny statement reads:

An examination of the tradition, from the Biblical witness, the early Church, and the Lutheran Reformation, reveals the core of Christian worship to be Word, Baptism, and Eucharist. The pattern, or ordo, of entry into the community is teaching and baptismal bath. The pattern of the weekly gathering of the community on the Lord’s Day is the celebration centered around the Word and Eucharistic meal. These core elements are clearly evident in the historical witnesses of the Christian worship tradition. Further, it is evident that the purpose of this pattern of worship is faithfully to receive and faithfully to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Vincent of Lerins said of the catholic faith that it has been held “everywhere, always, by all” Vincent was recognizing the transcultural elements of the Apostolic Faith already in the fifth century.

Critiquing the Cartigny statement, one must recognize that their focus was upon identifying liturgical structure and liturgical elements in the local congregational worship. Other transcultural elements also exist that are important, such as justification by faith through grace in Jesus Christ, or how God uses the means of grace by the power of the Holy Spirit, where and when He wills, to bring this justification to a person. These transcultural elements are very important especially for Lutheran worship, however, they are really transcultural doctrines more than transcultural elements. While present in scripture, many doctrines where only emphasized later in church history because of heresies. Many were not clearly enunciated in the literature of the early church, nor promoted in the liturgical worship of the early church because these doctrines were not being contested. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize these transcultural elements and doctrines for they are the message, the Apostolic Faith that Christian liturgy is seeking to communicate.

The second way worship dynamically relates to culture is contextually. In worship, contextual elements are those taken from local cultures and used in the service of the church. The incarnation of Jesus provides the best analogy for understanding how God works contextually in our world; for as the second person of the Trinity, He was outside of culture. When He took on flesh, He entered our world as a Jew. He spoke and understood Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. His teachings used symbols and examples that reflected the local culture and connect with culture’s most basic experiences. Water was used in Baptism, related to cleansing and life. Bread and wine was used in the Lord’s Supper, relating to table fellowship and sustenance for life. These contextual elements had meaning and symbolism before Jesus connected them with His promise of forgiveness. The forgiveness offered in the Sacraments were enhanced and supported by the already-present meaning and function of bread, wine, and water within the local culture.

Incorporating cultural elements into liturgical worship has followed two methods in church history, they are creative assimilation and dynamic equivalence. Generally, creative assimilation begins with the culture and imports cultural symbolism into Christian worship; whereas, dynamic equivalence begins with the Christian liturgy and seeks to reexpress it using cultural elements that have equal meaning or value.

Examples of creative assimilation from the rite of baptism include wearing a white baptismal gown, or giving a lighted candle. These assimilations of cultural elements normally correspond to biblical typology, where local cultural elements are “reinterpreted in the context of biblical personages and events.” This is perhaps the easiest way to enrich a liturgical tradition in a local congregation, simply because there are many possibilities for creative assimilation. This needs to be balanced by recognizing there are many cultural elements that should not be assimilated. There are limits to creative assimilation; Anscar Chupungco has provided some guidance when considering bringing in a new cultural element:

First, supposing the newly added cultural elements possess what one can call “connaturalness” with the Christian liturgy, have they duly undergone the process of doctrinal purification? Similarity is not always a gauge of orthodoxy and orthopraxis. Second, are the biblical types used appropriate? It is possible that violence is done to the biblical text in order to accommodate culture. The opposite is violence as well. Third, do the local elements enhance the theological understanding of the Christian right? It can happen that they divert attention from the Christian rite by overly evoking their cultural provenance or, worse, by sending a wholly different message. Fourthly, do they harmonize with other elements of he rite, and are they sufficiently integrated with them? Perhaps they are no more than useless decorative appendices or cultural tokens with little or no role to play in the unfolding of the right. And fifth, we need to ask a question too easily forgotten . . .: do people accept them as an authentic contribution of their culture to the enrichment of Christian worship.

By the making good choices about additions or changes to the liturgy, creative assimilation offers the potential to dramatically enrich liturgical worship.

The second method of incorporating cultural elements into worship is dynamic equivalence. Dynamic equivalence “involves re-expressing components of Christian worship with something from a local culture that has an equal meaning, value, and function.” Dynamic equivalence is a more difficult level of contextualization that often requires interdisciplinary collaboration and research. What makes it complicated is that every culture has its own identity, and every language has its own genius and special characteristics. Since each person is locked into his or her culture, it often requires a collaborative effort to achieve. The LWF has a procedure that may be followed when employing dynamic equivalence:

First, the liturgical ordo (basic shape) should be examined with regard to its theology, history, basic elements, and cultural backgrounds. Second, those elements of the ordo that can be subjected to dynamic equivalence without prejudice to their meaning should also be determined. Third, those components of culture that are able to re-express the Gospel and the liturgical ordo in an adequate manner should be studied. Fourth, the spiritual and pastoral benefits our people will derive from the changes should be considered.

Whenever working with cultural elements using the dynamic equivalence method, one needs to be aware that almost every aspect of culture has religious undertones. One not only has to be concerned about importing unwanted cultural meaning into Christian worship, but also maintaining a proper distance from culture. When religion and culture become too close, that is, the line between them becomes hard to distinguish, and there is a danger that Christian rituals will be culturally reduced “to mere social affairs.” For example, baptisms in Russia are fashionable and have become more of a social celebration than a new birth into the Christian faith. Another example might be church weddings in Europe, which have lost almost all their religious meaning.

There is another method that deserves mention, formal correspondence. Formal correspondence also starts with the liturgy when introducing Christianity into a new cultural setting. In contrast to dynamic equivalence, however, formal correspondence starts with the liturgy and translates it into the new culture without finding any dynamic equivalents. It “tends to be no more than a literal, word-for-word or phrase-by-phrase, translation to the point of ignoring the linguistic characteristics of the audience.” One evidence of this method is clearly visible when transliterations of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin phrases are used in the liturgy and church life. While formal correspondence is doctrinally safe method of bringing the Gospel into a new cultural setting, it is unable to bring the depth and richness that dynamic equivalence offers.

The third way liturgical worship interacts with the culture is by challenging the culture, that is, being counter-cultural. Christian worship doesn’t seek to blend in with the culture and become absorbed; rather it seeks ways to critique the culture by opposing those elements which are contrary to the Word of God. Scripture teaches that Christians are a people on pilgrimage, aliens traveling through this world on their way to their heavenly home. Paul wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2). The LWF Cartigny statement put it this way:

The Church throughout its history, but its faithful proclamation of the Gospel, has challenged the status quo and the social injustices of the day (for example, Christ and his disciples sharing meals with the socially unaccepted people of their day). In the same way, the churches in every generation and in every context must ask what in their worship can/should be counter-cultural, challenging the culture in which it exists and ultimately facilitating its transformation.

In one sense, the Lutheran term of simul justus et peccator could be used to describe people as well as cultures. The Church needs to maintain a voice against sin and by its witness contradict cultural elements that are not of God. One vivid example comes from India where it is reported that some upper-caste Christians refuse to commune if they cannot do so before Dalits in their congregations. While these Indians are acting in accordance with cultural norms, such a cultural teaching runs counter to the Christian culture. In the Church, there is no class or caste distinctions, there are not rich and poor, male and female, slave and free before the altar of the Lord. All kneel together as the body of Christ to receive the Sacrament; so here is a good example of Christian Worship that is counter-cultural. The Church is in culture and uses cultural elements in her liturgy, but the Church must maintain enough distance to be able to critique the culture.

Finally, worship has a cross-cultural dynamic; there is a sharing between cultures of liturgical ideas and practices that can enrich the liturgy, as well as strengthen the sense of the communio of the Church. Cross-cultural dynamics of worship are excellent ways of sharing the best of each culture, as well as stimulating creativity in other Christian communities. It must be said however, that the same caution must be exercised to insure that any cultural elements being introduced through cross-culturally channels are culturally appropriate in the new culture and will enhance their liturgy. What works in one culture will not necessarily work in another, for not all cultural elements can be used cross-culturally.

To summarize thus far, Christian worship relates dynamically with its surrounding culture in four ways, transcultural, contextual, counter cultural, and cross-cultural elements. Methods such as creative assimilation and dynamic equivalence are able to incorporate new cultural elements into liturgical worship. What is most important is to always keep in mind the center of liturgical worship – Jesus Christ. Christian worship must be rooted in Jesus Christ, and built upon the apostolic foundation. From its very beginnings, Christian worship has been built upon existing tradition. As Eugene Brand has said:

Because of the historical and incarnational aspects of Christian faith, the Church’s worship has remained anchored to the historical person of Jesus and the culture in which he lived. Since Jesus was a Jew, Christian worship has retained a Jewish character. . . Adherence to liturgical forms rooted in the Judaism of Jesus’ day is what marks Christian worship as authentic. the sharing of the loaf and the cup in the context of thanksgiving is the chief example.

Almost every text book that traces the roots of Christian worship shows how our Christian worship was patterned after the traditions and worship patterns of Jewish synagogue. The ancient pattern of synagogue worship that included gathering around a meal on the Sabbath has obvious parallels with the early church gathering on Sunday for the Lord’s Supper.

As the worship tradition grew, the early church struggled to recognize what would be acceptable to use in worship and what was not. For example, candles were not used until the fourth century because of their association with idolatry and pagan temples. White baptismal gowns are mentioned early on in the Christian tradition as representing forgiveness and purity, most likely because of a creative assimilation based upon the toga candida of the Roman citizens. While almost every cultural element has a similar story behind it, the critical principle that has been learned over the ages is that any liturgical change or introduction of new cultural elements must be built upon what already exists. There needs to be a connection with the core elements of Word, Baptism, and Eucharist mentioned above. The Roman Catholics put it this way,

[C]are must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing. The process can perhaps be described as a tree that branches out, as a rite that develop into other different rites to form a . . . liturgical family”

This is helpful, for it reminds us that all cultural elements that are introduced into the liturgy do not add anything to the Gospel; rather they are to be brought in to fill up a cultural gap. The liturgy is not about entertainment, or simply adding elements for the sake of interest. It is to make the Apostolic Faith available and relevant to all people, in every culture. That is the purpose behind the ongoing process of contextualization, to insure liturgy’s symbolism is effective in communicating the Apostolic faith.

A paradigm shift occurs for many people like myself when they discover that the liturgical movement is not working toward a repristination of ancient liturgies. Rather, their focus is on identifying historical norms for worship based upon New Testament and Church history, and then using these insights to establish fundamental principles for ongoing, liturgical reform and contextualization. Their motive is pastoral, in that they desire the liturgy to once again become a vital element in forming the faith of believers. Part of the reason many congregations are turning to non-liturgical formats is because liturgical worship has become ineffective at conveying the faith. In Christian worship,

signs which no longer convey the message of the liturgy nor speak to the people are empty, lack efficacy and betray the very purpose of liturgical signs. One is perhaps tempted to conclude that they must therefore be changed. But such a conclusion without further qualification is open to debate. For there are signs which may not be understood, because they happen to belong to another cultural milieu or have been obscured by historical evolution. It seems that the right approach to the matter is catechesis, which situates liturgical signs in their cultural and historical context.

Catechesis on liturgical worship is important, for even the best cultural symbols need some explanation. While it is a liturgical truth that the best way to learn about the liturgy is to actively participate in it; it is also recognized that “participation was enhanced when it was informed.” The better people understand their liturgy, the better they are able to, and want to participate in the liturgy. The past century of liturgical reform has shown that most “resistance to [liturgical] change often stems from ignorance and a lack of information, rather than anything else.” Therefore, it is important to remember that before any changes are introduced or suggested, there must be an appropriate amount of education before hand.

Motivation is also an important factor, and it is helpful to understand the role that the liturgy used to play in the church. Before the days of the catechisms, it was the liturgy that was the principle means of religious training! Historically, it was the liturgy that functioned as their catechism (shedding new light on the familiar phrase, Lex orandi, lex credendi). As the church enters the post-modern era, the liturgy may be a formative ally in Christian education. Unlike the catechism that emphasizes the rational, intellectual powers of understanding and memory, the liturgy has “a far greater formative power with its appeal to the emotions, the senses, and the will.” It is the desire of the liturgical movement to help the church recognize the power and influence of the liturgy to form one’s faith.

Architecture is also a powerful cultural element that the church uses in her service, yet it is a symbolic power that is seldom used. Consider the typical baptismal font used in many Lutheran Churches. They are normally small, movable, and contain a small silver bowl that remains empty except on the day a baptism is scheduled. What do these fonts say about baptism? Do they communicate the same degree of importance that is part of Lutheran sermons and catechetical teaching? In recent years, attention has been given to this due to the influence of the liturgical movement. Baptismal fonts have become more elaborate to emphasis their importance, they have been placed near the entrance to the sanctuary symbolizing how one enters the Christian faith and the family of God. Catechesis has taught Lutherans that it is ok to dip one’s finger into the water as a reminder of their baptism, reinforced by making the sign of the cross. Some newer fonts have running water to emphasis baptism as the living water, while others are becoming large enough to allow full immersion representing our entering the watery tomb and rising to new life.

These changes are brought about as a means to make liturgical worship more effective in forming the faith of the believers. In America, it is an unfortunate reality that most people only spend one hour in church. Why not work to make the liturgy as powerful as the sermon in communicating the message of the Gospel? Understanding the dynamics of contextualization, and being able to critically analyze the cultural symbolism within liturgy, is on ongoing process and very important to maintaining a dynamic worship service.

As one begins reading in this area, it is helpful to know that there are a variety of terms that are used to describe this process. Some of the terms include: accommodation, adaptation, localization, inculturation, contextualization, and indigenization. Many of these terms have overlapping definitions, which may be an indication that theologians are having difficulty agreeing on a single term.
The single exception is the term indigenization, which is becoming the preferred term in the literature. While there is still a variety of definitions, the primary source for the current understanding of indigenization comes from the Roman Catholic Church.

Defined in the Papal Encyclical, Redempitoris Missio (1990:89), as ‘the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity and the insertion of Christianity in the various human creatures.’ Thus instead of a merely external relationship between the Gospel and culture, conceived in terms of ‘kernel’ and ‘husk,’ it urges instead a dynamic ‘ongoing process of reciprocal and critical interaction and assimilation between them.

Whenever speaking about contextualization, localization, or inculturation, the classical understanding of bringing the Gospel into new contexts is understood. What is different about indigenization is that it often seeks to indigenize the Apostolic faith as the Apostolic faith indigenizes culture. African theology is giving much attention to this area, as they look for an authentic African theology. Many are putting the Apostolic faith into African categories and expressions, separating it from any cultural elements that have previously been part of Church tradition. There is a general rejection of Western traditions they see as being generated by Western categories that don’t fit African culture. The unanswered question is, “Is this use of indigenization altering the transcultural elements of the Apostolic Faith?” Is indigenization as being used in Africa in such a way that allows the Gospel to transform culture, or is culture transforming the Apostolic faith? There seems to be a double movement contained in the definition of inculturation that is significant, and demand caution.

This issue is very complex, but most likely will have an effect upon all Christendom as the center of Christianity shifts to Africa in the next 50 years. It must be observed that Africans are taking seriously Christian worship, and seeking the same goal that is also being sought here – that liturgical worship contains accurate symbols that are effectively able to communicate the Apostolic Faith. Cultures don’t stand still, they are constantly moving. Hence it follows that there needs to be now, as there has been in the past, an ongoing process of contextualization.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Separation of Church and State: What does it mean?

In almost any discussion today regarding politics and religion, this popular axiom will be used for guidance, “the separation of Church and State.” While the separation of Church and State is true, one must ask what does it really mean? In a post-modern world, truth appears to be relative to the opinion or view of the speaker. In this way, separation of Church and State has taken on many different meanings depending on the speaker and the context in which it is invoked. This short paper will attempt to discover the historical foundation of this phrase, how it has changed over time especially with the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, giving a clear understanding of what the phrase means today.

“Separation of Church and state” is often referred to as the summary of the Bill of Rights First Article position on the structural relationship between the church and the state. There are extensive roots behind this concept dating back to the periods of the Enlightenment and the Reformation, but James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were instrumental in the Founder’s debates during the forging of the First Amendment.

It is important to note that the word “state” was not referring to the individual States of the Union in its early usage, but to the Federal Government. The framers of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights were creating a new federal government that had limited powers over individual states. Therefore the First Article in the Bill of Rights applies only to the Federal Government, specifically the Congress since Congress is the legislative branch responsible for making laws. Therefore, the Bill of Rights limits the powers of the Federal government; it does not vest it with any new powers. This can be illustrated from early US history where, for example, Connecticut used state taxes to support the Congregational church and the Federal government could not interfere.

It is noteworthy that every state voluntarily disestablished their support of state religions. States recognized how governmental support of a state church or states sponsored denomination was actually detrimental. Entanglement with Government actually held back some religions, while artificially propping up others. Therefore, each state voluntarily disestablished without federal involvement; the first state to disestablish was in 1776, and the last was in 1833. In all these proceedings, the First Amendment was never cited or used as a rational supporting their actions.

All this would change with the Civil War victory and passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. The specific wording that impacted the First Amendment is, “No State shall . . . deprive any person of . . . liberty . . . without due process of law.” The primary intent of the Fourteenth Amendment was civil rights, and this was its primary function for about fifty years. But in Meyer v. Nebraska (1923), German Protestants were convicted of teaching their children in German; the Supreme Court reversed this decision noting how the defendant’s fundamental liberties were protected under the Fourteenth Amendment. These fundamental liberties included religious liberty. This began a progression of decisions expanded the meaning of ‘liberty’ in the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Cardozo wrote an opinion about the “liberty” protected in the Fourteenth Amendment, “I assume for present purposes that the religious liberty protected by the First Amendment against invasion by the nation is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment against invasion by the States”.

In Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940), the free exercise clause was expressly applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, and by extension to all county and municipal governments. Then in Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the disestablishment clause was expressly applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. John Witte writes, “by so incorporating the First Amendment religion clauses into the Fourteenth Amendment due process clause, the Court set in motion the creation of a new national law on religious liberty, governed by the federal courts and enforceable against federal, state, and local governments alike. . . . [This incorporation] has shifted final authority over the American Experiment from the states to the United States Supreme Court.

The Founders had a great concern about the liberty of conscious and had recognized the “unalienable right of private judgment in matters of religion.” Their concern was initially framed as a concern of individual states and the First Amendment specifically limited the Federal Government in the area of religion. With the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Courts picked up the founders concern for each individual’s liberty of conscious. One could understand the Court’s decisions to be in harmony with the founder’s initial concerns to limit governmental authority in the area of Church and State; all the Court did was take the separation between church and state that originally was applied only to the federal government and expand its application to all government at all levels, federal, state, and local governments. In this sense, the Court is upholding the primary concerns of the founders.

If the Court is upholding the primary concerns of the founders regarding the separation of church and state, why is there such criticism of the courts and their decisions towards religion? First, the courts rulings have neutered states’ authority in the area of religions. Traditionally, a state’s sovereignty was protected from the Federal government’s interference. States could promote a public religion, that is, a common system of beliefs, values, and practices drawn eclectically from the multiple denominations within a community. With the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court used the Fourteenth Amendment to expand the First Amendment to all levels of government. Today, no government voice is able to promote or defend the commonly held beliefs of a community since any individual can object. This has led to a second criticism, that the Court is maintaining a position of neutrality regarding religions matters. The Court’s neutrality is forcing all levels of government to maintain neutrality, again because of the Court’s position on the Fourteenth Amendment.

Finally, the Courts neutrality and its defense of each individual’s liberty in the area of religion is creating equality between religion and nonreligion. During a house debate in 1789 over the disestablishment and free exercise clauses of the first amendment, Benjamin Huntington stated “he hoped that amendment would be made in such a way to secure the rights of conscience, and a free exercise of the rights of religious, but not to patronize those who profess no religion at all.”

Looking at the abortion issue, in 1972 abortion was generally held to be an evil and was not legal in most states. It would have been virtually impossible to make abortion legal via legislation. However, the Supreme Court ruled abortion legal because of the Fourteenth Amendment’s liberty; and there was no governmental voice that could stand against their decision. Commonly held belief (public religion) within a community that had been promoted and protected by the states, is now pushed aside in favor in an individual rights, beliefs, and their right of privacy. In Roe v. Wade, the Court recognized the state of Texas’ position that life begins at conception and continued throughout the pregnancy; but it also recognized Jane Roe’s desire for an abortion based upon another theory of life. Even though the majority of people in the State of Texas felt abortion was wrong, a position held in common by the community, the Court ruled in favor of Jane’s Roe’s individual rights based in part upon the Fourteenth Amendment. The Church and the State have been separated and prevented, in my opinion, from being able to promote any form of a public religion; that is the common system of beliefs, values, and practices drawn eclectically from the multiple denominations within a community. Richard Neuhaus’ The Naked Public Square bears witness to this fact and highlights the difficulties of a democracy where popular values are excluded from the public forum.

In summary the popular axiom, “the separation of Church and State” has changed in many respects, while also remaining the same. This can be explained in part because American society has greatly changed these past 212 years, since the Bill of Rights took effect on December 15, 1791. Modern America not only has Protestants and Catholics as they did in colonial days, but now includes Muslims, Hindus, Atheists, Agnostics, Satanists, Witches, Moonies, and a growing number that are simply nonreligious. The complexity of individual rights and rights to privacy that exists today had not even entered into the minds of the founders of our nation. The separation that existed 212 years ago was healthy since there was retained by the States the authority to promote the public religion. Today, both the Church and the State are powerless towards promoting any public religion resulting in what Neuhaus called the naked public square. “Separation of church and state” on main street has come to means an individual’s rights to be separated from the Church, and the individual’s right to maintain a privacy concerning their private morality. Abortion is no longer a community issue; it is a woman’s choice. Adultery and fornication are no longer vices the community sought to discourage in favor of marriage and chastity; instead, these have become private decisions in an amoral society protected by a neutral Court. Similar statements could be made about homosexuality, divorce, same-sex marriages, euthanasia, and the list goes on and on. As the voice of the church is no longer respected in the public square, the state and municipal government’s voice on morality being restrained by the courts, it appears the future morality and social values will be directed by individuals under the protection of the Supreme Court. But the Court continues to struggle over religious issues, so the final chapter has still to be written. While the separation that exists today between Church and State has changed significantly from the separation Thomas Jefferson or James Madison described; it must be said that the First Amendment continues to be the best security of religious freedom when compared with other nations. While it isn’t perfect, it continues to provide a solid foundation to keep both church and the state in check.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Dead on Display – Art or Science?

On October 19, Body Worlds 3 opens, at the St. Louis Science Center. If you have not heard about this, you will (see for more information). Body Worlds is an anatomical display of real bodies, which have been preserved through a process called “plastination.” The body tissues in human corpses are infused with polymers and resins to replace all liquids and fats, thereby preventing decay and keeping the flesh pliable until the plastic hardens. Gunther von Hagens is the creator, and he has posed his cadavers playing basketball, smoking a cigarette, riding a plastinated horse, and even flirting with the viewer. By the time you receive this, those who want to know more can turn on the TV, open the paper, or search the Internet for more details. My point in writing is not to educate you on the morbid details of the exhibit, but to help guide the reader into some reflections about this cultural event that is happening in our midst. There is no doubt that our children’s friends at school, our co-workers, and even our families will be talking about it. It should make us uneasy, uncomfortable, and thereby provide Christians with a good topic for discussion and reflection.

While many of you probably have some immediate reaction to this, let me point you to the primary question this display poses, “Is the display of human cadavers an educational exhibit, or is it art? This is an important distinction, since Christians have supported and defended the use of cadavers for medical training, research, or educational aids. This is also the position of The International Society for Plastination (ISP), which is a professional body dedicated to the study and dissemination of plastination techniques.... The ISP respects the human being, the dignity and the right for peace of the deceased and, thus, completely disaffirms display of human specimens if not entirely for educational purposes. It has never been acceptable in our culture in the Christian Church, to use the dead people for secular artistic creations. So the question is before you, is Body Worlds 3 an education exhibit and therefore a permissible use of cadavers? Or is Body Worlds 3 a secular art form that exploits the dead for financial gain? As you consider debate this, perhaps the following points are worth considering:

• If the goal is education of the general public, couldn’t plastic models be used? Is it really necessary to use real bodies? If yes, why?

• Over 20 million have viewed this exhibit, so what is the huge attraction? Is it the opportunity to learn something about the human body, radical nudity, or morbid curiosity? What accounts for the exhibit's sensationalist and entertainment-oriented aspects? Why are people paying for when they buy an $18 ticket?

• Clearly there is some educational value to the exhibit, but do the non-educational elements undermine the overall educational intent?

• The Church has supported the desecration of a body to save a life, i.e., organ donation, medical use of cadavers in training. However, can one defend Body Worlds by using the same logic? Defenders of Body Worlds point out that it is saving lives since it teaches people the harmful effects of smoking since a diseased lung is part of the exhibit – but is this the same thing?

• How are Christians to honor the dead? Are these dead on display being honored? If so, how? If not, why?

• What does it mean that Gunther von Hagen signs each body? Does his signature make each plasticized and molded cadaver an artistic creation? And if it does become an artistic creation, doesn’t this require the original person’s identity to be discarded in order to make them von Hagens’ work?

Finally, please notice how little debate this “cultural event” is causing. A quick search on the Internet reveals how little objection or thought has been given to this ethical question. From my perspective, this lack of resistance or challenge to putting dead people on display for profit is perhaps the most significant aspect because it means that Body Worlds accurately represents America’s current attitudes toward the body, death, and human dignity or lack thereof. I’m not saying all Americans agree or support Body Worlds, I’m just saying that displaying the dead is generally becoming an accepted part of our culture. (The popularity of CSI would support this observation). I hope this helps you to having some good discussions with your neighbors, friends, and family, but before I conclude, let me add several theological points as guideposts for your discussions. First, humans are more than flesh and blood. Each person also has a soul and spirit as we learn from Jesus words in Matthew 10:28. Two good web links from our Synod are:, which discusses whether we are body and soul, or body, soul and spirit. The short answer is that scripture describes humans both ways, body and soul, as well as body, soul and spirit. Another resource is our synodical statement on Death, Resurrection, & Immortality. It also shows how scripture teaches that humans are more than flesh and blood, that there is a resurrection of the body, and life eternal.

Second, human dignity comes from God, and it happened when He gave each individual a body and soul. He also created humans to be conceived and born into life, live upon the earth for a time, then a time to die, finally coming to judgment, and eternal life. This dignity of life, given by God, cannot be transferred or duplicated. In addition, the dignity of each individual life is to be preserved by each society, so that every body and soul, each human being from conception to the grave is respected as an individual and treated as having individual worth. An individual does not lose that dignity in death, rather it remains in tact looking forward to the resurrection of the dead. What is happening in Body Worlds, however, is that the dead are stripped of their identity, stripped of their dignity, and through our legal system have become the property of another for financial gain – a “work of art for educational purposes.” Whenever one individual is treated as a piece of property, or when someone uses another human being for financial gain, our society has always condemned the practice (at least it did in the past).

It is my position that Gunther von Hagens is using other people’s flesh for financial gain, under the guise of education. It does not really matter if the individuals in question are dead or alive, the ethical issue is the same from a theological standpoint. It also does not matter if those who died willingly gave their consent; people consent to immoral acts all the time, but that does not make these acts right in the eyes of God. It is a sin to exploit another human being’s body for financial gain, and my point of comparison is prostitution and slavery, both helpful comparisons when considering the ethical uses of the human body. Of course, I am assuming that a live person and a person who has died has been awarded the same amount of dignity by God, and should be treated as such (especially if one remembers that the dead shall rise again). If one agrees with my logic, then it follows that Body Worlds has dehumanized hundreds of cadavers in order to treat them as property in order to make money ($300 million so far). I would argue that the reason money is being made, is not due to its educational value, but an exploitation of humanity’s morbid curiosity.

This is an ethical question revolving around our understanding about what is right and wrong, what ought to be done, and what ought not to be done. My primary motive is not to dissuade people from attending, and if one has attended, it is not to bring judgment upon them. Whether it is a sin or not, probably needs to be decided by the individual, since it is a matter of the heart; let me suggest the Romans 14 as a place to begin, especially verse 14 and following. My primary motive is to help people reflect about what is happening in our society, and to enable the reader to use this “cultural event” as a means of exploring one’s faith, and discussing it with family, friends, and neighbors.

Christians are the salt of the earth, the light on the hill, and one way we do this is by bringing our faith to bear upon events and attitudes in our society. The better one understand what it means to be human, and why Christians ought to protect human dignity from conception until judgment day, the better one will be able to discuss other issues like abortion, stem-cell research, euthanasia, end of life issues, and others. They are all connected, and the answers people seek cannot be found in anatomy, biology or psychology; they can only be found in Christ. Christianity offers a much higher dignity for humanity than the plasticization process that results in an “object of reverence” to use von Hagens own words. Our dignity, worth and value comes from Christ, and while the visual display of bright and clean cadavers many be aesthetically pleasing to the masses, I still prefer word picture described by Job: “I know that my Redeemer lives and that He shall stand at the Last Day upon the earth. And though, after my skin, worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God; Whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold, and not another.” Sola Dei Gloria

Friday, January 20, 2006

Why is Evangelism so difficult for so many?

One of the questions I’m contemplating today is, why is evangelism so difficult? Sharing our faith with others so difficult. I am coming to see that the presence of an evangelistic spirit is a sign that a Christian’s primary allegiance is to Christ, that is, their love for Christ has permeated their entire life. Evangelistic people have one primary allegiance in all they do: their faith shines forth whether they are at the store, or in school, or at work or at home. Their primary allegiance to Christ is a value that colors everything they do or say. It isn’t something they have to do, rather it is more of who they are. This isn’t true of every Christian. Perhaps this is because Western society has divided our culture into private and public spheres. For most Americans, religion is often considered a private matter. So what governs the public side of life?
On the mission field, missionaries often discover that new Christians have dual allegiances. What this means is that new converts have changed their allegiance to Christ, but they retain previous allegiances to traditional values or power sources. So they might go to church on Sunday, but they also visit the medicine man when their child gets sick on Thursday. They do this because they haven’t come to that the medicine man is sort of a false Christ. Hopefully, this will change in time. If one applies this model to the USA, could it be that where an evangelistic spirit is lacking, people as are maintaining a dual allegiance? To put it another way, a person with a dual allegiance demonstrates faith in their private, religious expressions, but really hasn’t let it take hold in the other area of their lives. They reveal their allegiance to Christ inside the buildings specifically designated for religious purposes (Churches); but outside these buildings, they allegiances are to secular values, many of which are good such as helping others, volunteering, hospitality, but which are kept separate from a religion or a religiosity. Sickness is a medical problem, and doesn’t really concern God unless medicine has failed. Finances are the result of personal decisions and wise or unwise choices, and are not considered gifts from God judging from American’s behaviors and attitudes. Americans also value education based upon human knowledge, yet education about religious knowledge is hardly attended or almost never funded. Could this be a sign of dual allegiance, a secular allegiance to science and technology, and a religious allegiance to Christ? If this is true, such insight might help explain why evangelism is so much work for so many Christians; they haven’t recognized that they are maintaining dual allegiances. Something to think about.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

What Part is truly Christian? What is American?

One benefit of being an international traveler is that cross-cultural experiences provide an individual with the opportunity to discover what part of oneself is truely Christian, and what part is merely American. So much of what we take to be true is shaped by our culture, it forms of perceptions, shapes our values, and literally prepares us for the American Way of life. But outside of America, our way of life does not always work; nor is it understood outside of our American context. Such experiences are helpful, in that they prompt reflections: "Is the core of my personal identity essentually formed by American Cutlrual values (Pragmatism, optimism, individualism, etc...) or am I shaped by the Gospel of the Kingdom? Is the literal and figurative center of my world more about geography or a certain place, such as "the American Way," or is the center of my world more about a spirituality, a specefic way of living and loving? Is it not possible or even desireable to separate my American Identity from my Christian identity? What ever the case, it is certain that the later needs shapes the former, and not the other way around. Many Christians are unaware of how much culture has shaped their understanding of Christianity, and in turn, their view of the world. We are to be aliens and stangers in this world (1 Peter 2:11), so need to be firmly grounded upon Christ, and His Word. Wherever we go, as Christians and citizens of the Heavenly Jerusalem, we should be aware of a "not-at-home feeling," that heightens our sensitivity to our surrounding culture; Just as we long for those "at home" moments with Jesus in worship, prayer and meditation upon his Word. The more we are at home with Jesus and His Word, the more we can view this world from an outsider's perspective, thereby being a witness of a better way of life -- a life that leads to eternal life with Christ in our heavenly home. (Based upon and paraphrased from an article I read at )

Monday, December 26, 2005

Romans 12:1-2: Not conformed, but transformed

Romans 12:1-2 is an interesting commentary upon how to motivate a congregation towards becoming active in evangelism. “Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Notice how the heart of the matter in verse two is NOT what we do, but the way we think, the way we understand the world. Too often, we seek to address the issue of evangelism by introducing a new program for people to become involved in; but if people’s way of thinking isn’t changing, if it isn’t being tranformed by the renewal of their mind with the Word of God, then any evangelism program is doomed from the start. In all we do as Christians, and especially as the Church, renewal of our minds through the Word needs to be foundational, so the way people think is changed, so they can begin to see the world anew – transformed by the Word, able to discern and follow God in his good, pleasing and perfect Will.