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Pondering the South African Memesphere – Looking for the Good in Everything

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Community? Nay, Transformation…

September 5th, 2009 · Posted by Hugo · 25 Comments

During a recent vacation to South Africa I met up with many old friends, including having tea with my favourite pastor. Many an interesting thing discussed, as usual, as well as catching up with some news, he pointed out an interesting stance:

Many seem to think Christianity is about community. It isn’t about community, it is about transformation.

Interesting. I can see that. A lot of the developments I’ve seen in Christianity lately seem to be related to getting back that transformational power, escaping from dogmatic ideology it has turned into in many contexts. Where does community fit into it then? Maybe something along the lines of transformation happens best within the context of community?

Categories: Worldviews
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25 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Hugo // Sep 5, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    A little bit of curious searching, and I happened upon this book: Conversion to Christianity: historical and anthropological perspectives on a great transformation by Robert W. Hefner. I see he’s been writing about Islam lately.

    So many things I’m interested in, so little time to pursue them, so hard to prioritise. How do I rationalise spending more time on reading books like that? When I’m also trying to get myself to spend more time on the technical stuff I want to work on… but I’m just so exhausted on weekends. (They’re supposed to be for relaxing, etc etc.)

    I wonder if tackling journals instead of books might be a good choice: academic papers can be tough reading, but in some ways they’re more bite-sized?

  • 2 Michael // Sep 5, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Yup, journals are a great idea. To get published, the thesis of a book has to be either popular or controvertial. Journals don’t need the same sort of popular appeal so you get more varied and less extreme viewpoints in journals.

    Like your take on transformation in the community as being central to christianity. Don’t forget though that in this missio Dei, personal transformation as well as transformation of the community take place in the context of cummunity. I know from personal experience in the Mother Theresa Homes for the Destitute and Dying that an individual’s concern for the tranformation of the community into a just, inclusive, loving community does more to transform the individual than the community.

  • 3 Hugo // Sep 5, 2009 at 7:18 pm

    I’ve also seen an interesting thing highlighted in “mission work” in Stellenbosch Gemeente: while they go on missions to go help out wherever help is needed, they go to be transformed. That is much of the stated goal.

    Actually, I think you find that in more “fundie-evangelical” kind of outreaches too. People are transformed by their work at evangelising to others.

    Even the “fundie nutters” (I’m going to regret this word choice) that frequent Speaker’s Corner in London these days: most of them have no effect on the people around them, other than for some entertainment. It seems like some spectators are there solely to abuse the fundies. What comes out? Those that go to talk, they are the ones that experience deep challenges to their being, and I’d think they either end up torn apart, disillusioned, or even more dogmatically and “fundamentally” committed to their beliefs.

    Disclaimer: I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ve not done a study, I just went to Speaker’s Corner as spectator two or three times. Most interesting was the Marxist that I saw there once, and an entertainer and regular that was explicitly and consciously just ranting about whatever topic the audience wanted him to rant on. Pity the last time saw none of those, no politics, which was very big in the 70s I heard, I only saw the religious people.

    And some show-downs between those pushing Islam and those pushing Christianity (complete with kids holding banners of the ten commandments).

    Disgressing? Ah, whatever, let me round off my digression with two links:

    The Mission Trip: Part One and Part Two are posts in RealLivePreacher’s “Disillusionment Chronicles”.

  • 4 Hugo // Sep 5, 2009 at 7:29 pm

    On the journal-vs-book discussion:

    Yup, journals are a great idea. To get published, the thesis of a book has to be either popular or controvertial. Journals don’t need the same sort of popular appeal so you get more varied and less extreme viewpoints in journals.

    I was thinking along the lines of reputable journals having better submission controls (peer review? editorial board?) to maintain quality scholarship, while I’ve heard some people decided “well, if I can’t get my work published in an academic journal, I’ll just go and write books instead”. (The most scary being the creationists that can’t come up with solid scientific research to publish in journals, so instead they write text books for school kids?!!?!)

    Robert W. Hefner’s work looks good though, didn’t mean to mention it in the same breath. ;)

  • 5 Pienk Zuit // Sep 10, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    Jammer vir die spam, maar as ek moeite gaan doen soek ek lesers. Lees meer oor Suid-Afrika se tweede satelliet, SumbandilaSat, se lansering op die 15 September op my blog. Elke dag tot die lansering sal daar ‘n satelliet-verwante inskrywing wees.

  • 6 Bad Ben // Sep 12, 2009 at 11:02 pm

    Have you heard of “the rise of christianity” by Rodney Stark? Very cool sosiological reconstruction of the early church community. Should be an interesting conjunctive perspective on this post’s idea…

  • 7 Hugo // Sep 13, 2009 at 1:48 am

    I’ve heard of it now. ;) Don’t know if I heard of it earlier. Rodney Stark sounds like an interesting fellow. Sounds like he has beef with Darwin, for some obscure reason. That of course doesn’t at all affect the value of hiswork in the sociology of religion and his contributions to the understanding of the growth of Christianity. Another book for my reading list, though I have to face the fact that I’ll probably not ever get to it. (I am eyeing (eying?) the David Bosch that’s now sitting on my shelf here though.)

  • 8 Michael // Sep 17, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    On a quick aside, I read something interesting the other day on the topic of “the rise of Christianity. The author pointed out that until the discovery of the Americas, Christianity was the religion of a relatively small number of people (mostly in Europe). And ole Christopher C only managed to convince the powers that be to fund his little discovery expidition by messing up the maths regarding the size of the globe. His calculations had the earth 1/3 smaller than it actually is, and it was only this mess up that made him think he could go west to get east (so to speak). He was on his way to a watery grave when he just happened to bump into the Americas. Now, if he hadn’t perhaps the Chinese would have gotten there first (or something!) and Christianity would possibly be a minority religion. All of this to set up a question: Did God mess up Columbus’ maths in an act of sneaky-sneaky sovereignty, or was he just a moron? …. sorry if that’s a little left-field of the purpose of this blog. Cheers!

  • 9 Wim Conradie // Sep 17, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    China is almost 4x farther from America than Europe if you don’t go through Russia & Alsaka. Don’t think math made such a big difference.

  • 10 Hugo // Sep 18, 2009 at 12:23 am

    On the other hand, the Bering Strait is only 85km wide:

    The Bering Strait has been the subject of scientific speculation that humans migrated from Asia to the North American continent across a land bridge formed by lower ocean levels in the distant past exposing a ridge beneath the ocean. At periods when the oceans were lower, such as when glaciers locked up vast amounts of water, the exposed ridge would have allowed humans to simply walk from Siberia to Alaska, thus populating North and South America thousands of years ago.[1]

    Another unrelated note: Christopher Columbus predates the Protestant Reformation. I suppose that set up America as a good destination for Protestant emigration. I wonder when Catholicism got established in the States: according to a survey from 2007, there are just over 46% as many Catholics as there are Protestants.

  • 11 saneman // Sep 18, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    surely “transformation” is more aggressive wording instead of “community”. least with “community” you can still pretend you are doing good by spreading belief in myth and legend.

    “transformation” sounds like it is openly wanting to mess with and change peoples lives.

    not to high jack this thread, just wanted to show you guys this article:

    http://www.skeptic.co.za/content/view/215/1/

  • 12 saneman // Sep 18, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    and just a q why are my comments being moderated? Gerhard’s arnt… and the comments posted by some of the whack jobs here are far crazier than what i say.

    just a simple question, u can remove this comment with your moderation powers

  • 13 Hugo // Sep 18, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    No, individual transformation is the whole point. Transformation from bad to good, in particular.

    I recall you indicating understanding why you got dropped into the moderation queue, back when it happened. Do you think I should do the same to gerhard?

  • 14 Wim Conradie // Sep 18, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    I like the idea of transformation. But transformation can also be nagtive (when it makes something worse). Like Saneman saw the “messing with people’s lives” part.

    Would growth in that case be a better term to use? Although I think growth only refers to living objects (self, community, etc), but I think this is the context it is being used in.

  • 15 Hugo // Sep 19, 2009 at 12:42 am

    Wim, agreed.

    When it comes to “messing with people’s lives” versus positive transformation, I think it’s much to do with what drives it. The way I feel about it: messing with people’s lives is when some people try to convince other people to do something (transform) by various kinds of manipulation. That sounds like it can be bad. Positive transformation would be more likely, I feel, if it’s rather a choice by the transformed individual: that they do the seeking and they find the tradition under which they can be transformed.

    Then there’s the transformation we talked about above: the kind of transformation experienced when we go and participate in a community far removed from our own, with much more “bare” needs. (Saneman, did you read the comments above?)

    What I like about the moderation queue is that it slows down the publishing of comments that drive me up walls. I can relax about them, so that by the time I hit “accept” (or whatever the link is) I’m a bit more calm. Why saneman? Because he’s the best at driving me up the walls.

    He feels, to my subjectivity, like the only fundamentalist. Others have come and gone. Which isn’t good, because I actually want them to stick around, if they’re not of the saneman variety.

    What do I mean by fundamentalism? Something like this:

    least with “community” you can still pretend you are doing good by spreading belief in myth and legend.

    “You pretend you’re doing good”.

    Implied: no Christianity or Christians ever do any good for the world. Ever. That’s a fundamentalist’s opinion, right there. A non-fundamentalist would be able to recognise the good that also comes from Christianity, even if it only happened in three-standard-deviations circumstances. I’m really not convinced saneman is able to do that.

  • 16 Michael // Sep 20, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    Tranformation has to be something we trust God to do, both in the community and in our personal lives. Transformation is not about “changing people”, it’s about loving people. Let’s say that the Church in South Africa devolved into a reactive, violent, fundamentalist institution. The loving thing would be to trust God for change, not by engaging in angry debates or resorting to political measures of restraint and sanction, but to dialogue in a loving way with these “future-fundies” and to try to heal the communities that they have harmed through practical measures. The same steps would be true no matter what you believed was wrong with the communities – apathy towards injustice, pro-life arguments, or misrepresentation of the heart of God…

    Transformation viewed this way is something everyone can buy into (correct me if I’m wrong). We may not pray for or work for or hope for the same things, but we need to agree that neither manipulation nor ignoring evil in the world (whatever you believe that is) will help.

  • 17 Hugo // Sep 20, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    To attempt a quick&dirty translation of Michael’s thoughts to non-theistic/post-theistic language:

    Transformation has to be something that comes from the inside, both in the community and in our personal lives.
    […]
    The loving thing would be to trust them to be moved from the inside, not by engaging in angry debates or resorting to political measures of restraint and sanction, but to dialogue in a loving way…

    And “the heart of God” is talk about that which should ideally be at the core of our lives. From words I used in God as Meaning Assigner,

    the source of meaning in your life, the source of your values, the source of your concept of what is right and what is wrong, especially including the reason that you stick to doing right and avoid doing wrong.

    Getting that right is, to me, the “post-theistic language” version of not misrepresenting the heart of God.

    (“Which God?” – well, that’s what we’re talking about, what theology is about, our idea of how it should be. And we don’t believe in an authoritarian black-and-white penal-code driven heart, we feel e.g. the heart-of-fundie-Islam is a misrepresentation of how things should be. We can nevertheless learn more about good representations and misrepresentations from other religions, each world/life-philosophy has its “theology” with more or less overlap.)

    An attempt to explain/translate, don’t know if that was worth something to someone. My point is to agree with Michael.

  • 18 Hugo // Sep 23, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    Worth a read, about personal transformation and evangelism:

    Ikon’s Evangelism Project.

    I like! I’d like it if this blog could provide a similar space for that kind of evangelism. Thoughts?

  • 19 Michael // Sep 23, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    Interesting stuff about Ikon.

    I remember hearing a lecture about dialogue as evangelism years ago from a dear older gentleman who had been dean of arts at a large american university during the days before the fall of the Berlin wall. During this time, he was invited with a handful of ballet dancers for a cultural exchange program in the then Soviet Union. The dean and most of the dancers were confessing evangelicals but decided to respect the warnings from the government not to “evangelise”. However, they were continually saught out by communist dancers and choreographers for dialogue. Both parties learnt a lot about the other and there was real repentance (in the true sense of the word – a change of mind/heart) on both sides.

    Evangelicals reading this (if there are any) need not worry about Ikon’s invitation (“please evangelise us”). This is not a watering down of faith. Dialogue with “the other” often leads to fuller understanding of the teachings of Christ. We all fall into religious dogmatism (even atheists do), so we could all do with the kind of humility (and it might be argued, the kind of faith) expressed in the invitation to true dialogue that Ikon is suggesting.

  • 20 Michael // Sep 29, 2009 at 8:49 pm

    Hugo:
    Hey. Sorry for the aside, but I wonder if you can help me find out a reliable source for some info. I’m trying to check a hypothesis that growth in fundamentalist churches in America has been largely in the male demographic rather than in the female demographic. Want to know if patriarchal mentality increases the likelyhood of being fundamentalist or not. Any place I can go for stats. It’s for a doctoral thesis, so it needs to be a good source.

  • 21 Hugo // Sep 30, 2009 at 9:29 pm

    Sorry Michael, I don’t think I can help.

    Do you really think that’s the case? (Growth in the male demographic.) I don’t have anything to measure that by. I don’t know who tends to traditionally be more church-going. I have heard fundie-leaning congregations suggest it’s very important for males to take a lead in religion in the home though. Maybe that’s “patriarchal mentality”?

    On the question: “does a patriarchal mentality increase the likelihood of being a fundamentalist?” – how do you establish causality from correlation? Maybe fundamentalism encourages a patriarchal mentality… And females could also be patriarchal, many fundie-leaning females are all too happy to take “traditional gender roles” and seem to be happier for it?

  • 22 Michael // Oct 5, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    I was talking to a friend a few days ago and we figured about the same thing – many fundie girls do seem to enjoy the safety of patriarchal mentality. There is definitely a link between the fundamentalism and patriarchy, but as you say, corrolation doesn’t prove causality. Not my area of expertise, nor my thesis, but I just thought I’d ask. Thanks!

  • 23 Hugo // Oct 5, 2009 at 9:45 pm

    Other question: the Hebrew Bible is certainly patriarchal. How would one go about taking it “very seriously”, but not going for the patriarchal thing? I can think of two ways:

    (a) talk of a “new covenant” that effectively replaces the old,
    (b) recognise the cultural context, and separate the truths you take very seriously from the cultural context that happened to reign at the time.

    What do you think? Another option or two I didn’t think of? Am I misrepresenting something with this suggestion?

  • 24 Michael // Oct 6, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    I think “the Hebrew Bible” is a bit of a broad category. Certainly the culture that Jesus lived in was patriarchal, but I’m not sure if it’s true that Jesus himself can be called patriarchal. Paul also made some pretty intensely non-patriairchal statements (“there is now neither male nor female”), along with some real harsh statements about women, especially women in leadership ministry positions. Actually my dad is writing a doctoral thesis on the subject. I think I swing more to your option (b), but I’m not sure that it’s quite that simple.

  • 25 Hugo // Oct 6, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    I was thinking “Old Testament”, then went with “Hebrew Bible” as Marcus Borg did in one of his books, as emphasis that it certainly doesn’t belong exclusively to Christians. I suppose generalising to “Old Testament” is still a sign of my own uncultured (barbaric?) state with regards to knowledge of the Hebrew Bible and its traditions? ;-)

    You’re talking about the New Testament (Greek?), which I’m agreeing is much less patriarchal, especially the statement you mentioned came to my mind as well.

    (Neither Jew nor Greek.)

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