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Posts Tagged ‘Islam’

I have a confession- I like to pick on philosophers.  To give an example, I’ll share a funny story from an OT prof in undergrad.  He was at a conference for Christian professors, intending to go to a session for OT professors.  He accidentally ended up in the session for philosophy professors and couldn’t get out.  What transpired (with perhaps some hyperbole) illustrates why I couldn’t go into philosophy.  According to my professor, they never actually arrived at the topic of discussion because they spent the entire time arguing over how certain words were best defined.  From the perspective of my professor, these were the worst kind of philosophers- talking about everything except the important things.  (Before Cousin Jeremy flays me, I should note that I’m needling.  I actually really enjoy philosophy… in 30 minute doses.)

As cumbersome as constantly worrying about proper definitions can be, philosophers of this ilk are on to something important.  What we mean by certain terms that we drop in casual conversation is of utmost importance, especially when we are discussing matters of eternal importance.  So while I do believe one can go too far down this road, constantly worrying that their words have no meaning until they explicitly define them for their listeners (which, of course, could descend into a never-ending cascade of defining the definitions), I think it is good to make sure that everyone is more or less on the same page.

I bring this up because I’ve recently been recalling my interactions with adherents to other faiths overseas.  I’ve had conversations over meals or cups of tea/coffee with Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists regarding their faith, Jesus, Christianity and a whole host of other topics.  These are instances where I’ve had to be sure that the other person is at least in the same ballpark as I am.

Let me give an example.  When a Muslim from another country asks me, “Are you a Christian?” it would be easy for me simply to say “yes.”  After all, I am.  But what I mean by “Christian” and what they mean may be, and probably are, two different things.  Instead of answering the question, though, I usually ask them what they mean by “Christian.”  The reason is this: “Christian” carries certain cultural connotations for them that it does not carry for me.  Most non-Christians in the non-Western world assume all Americans are Christians.  Many of them watch American TV via satellite (I’m caused some confusion overseas for not knowing the latest American pop phenoms) and assume that what they’re watching is representative of American culture and, thus, Christianity.

Christians sleep with multiple partners (example: a female friend was teaching English to a group of Muslim girls in Asia when they asked her about prom night.  They had seen on TV that American girls lose their virginity on prom night and were intrigued.  Keep in mind, their assumption is that these girls on TV are Christians).  Christians get drunk frequently.  Christians never go to church, never pray, never worship, and never mention God unless they’re swearing.  Christians use crude language.  Perhaps most importantly of all, Christians always support the American government, especially when they are attacking Muslims.

So if I answer “yes” to the question, I may be confirming some or all of these points, and potentially many others (I should note that not all non-Westerners think these things about Christians, but many do).  Is that what I want?  But if I ask them to explain what they mean, I get an inside track into their perception of Christians.  I can affirm what is true, deny what is wrong and clarify what is confusing.  But most importantly, I get to talk about Jesus, who is the centerpiece of all I believe. 

This goes for any number of terms we’re accustomed to leaving undefined: sin, salvation, God, heaven, hell, and so on.  These potential problems are multiplied when talking with a Buddhist, for example.  At least when I’m talking with a Muslim, I know that we can stand on common ground on a couple points: they have concepts of sin, heaven, hell, creation, etc., that are similar to ours.  Even though we understand God differently in many ways, at least we are both monotheists (though Muslims often don’t think we are) and don’t need to be convinced of God’s existence.

Buddhists, on the other hand, don’t even believe in a god.  Because of this, bad karma is different from sin, because they don’t believe in a God who can take offense to an immoral act.  Salvation and enlightenment are very different, as are nirvana and heaven.  Resurrection?  Forget abotu it.  If I’m going to talk with a Buddhist, I must take time to explain what I mean and let them into my worldview, just as I try to enter theirs.  It takes time, but it’s worth it.

Applying it to our context here in the West, I wonder if we should take time to define our terms more clearly for people.  A coworker might ask you on Monday morning, “what did you do this weekend?” and you may reply, “went to church.”  Do they know what that means?  What would change if you answered, for example, “worshipped God in a community of redeemed sinners”?  Would that open more doors to talk about what it really means to be the church and to follow Jesus?  I’ve used this approach before when a coworker asked if I were an evangelical.  I asked them what they mean by that term.  I’m happy to affirm my status as an evangelical, properly defined.  But if my coworker is thinking mostly in terms of how I vote in the elections and what TV programming I watch, then I don’t want to affirm those things.  Even if I line up with most evangelicals on many issues, that’s not what makes me an evangelical.  My belief in Jesus, as He is portrayed in the Bible, and the saving power of the Gospel is what makes me an evangelical.

So maybe the philosophers are right.  Maybe we do need to take a few minutes to define our terms and explain clearly what we mean.  Keep in mind, I’m not advocating abandoning our terminology in our culture, doing so will only spring forth new terms that will eventually become ill-defined.  I’m pushing us to assume less.  I’m pushing us to ask more questions, to get into the minds of those we talk to and understand where they’re coming from.  Doing so will open more doors that will otherwise be shut.  Spending more time explaining what we mean will give us a chance to talk about Jesus, which is what we should be trying to do anyway.

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Tim Tennent easily makes my list of the top 5 academic lecturers I’ve ever heard.  I had the pleasure of taking his Introduction to World Missions class in the winter of 2006, and much of his teaching still echoes in my head today.

Dr. Tennent has several classes up on BiblicalTraining.org, some of which are yet to be completed (e.g., missing lectures from Buddhism).  The content here is excellent, with a few limitations intrinsic to the medium:  (1)  The audio quality can be muddled from time to time, and it’s next to impossible to hear any questions from the class.  (2)  Some of these lectures (e.g., Buddhism) appear to have been recorded on tape, as such, there is an obvious point where the engineer had to switch tapes, resulting in some gaps in the lectures.  (3)  You’ll miss out on any visuals that Dr. Tennent provides.  This can be disappointing, since we all know the value of a picture to describe something (e.g., Buddhist iconography)  You’ll have to dig through Wikipedia or the like for visual aids.  (4)  Since there are no handouts, you’ll have to guess on the spelling of certain principles and beliefs, and doubly-so since there are often many variations on tranlisteration of foreign languages.

Please don’t let the shortcomings above scare you away, however.  Any one of these lectures is still immensely informative.  Tennent lectures with all the relevance, clarity and humility that make him one of my all time favorites.  I especially appreciate his ability to keep his lectures from mere academic exercises. He  always grounds his material in practical matters; what you’ll see every day “on the street,” as it were.

All this, and the price of admission is simply your time, which will be well-spent indeed.  Check him out, and send me your thanks later :)

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