When a designation obscures the subject …

Matt returned from a year in Kabul. Before he left we shared some good discussions about life and faith in the West and what that might look like in the East, especially in light of his experience getting to know some people from Muslim countries. I sent him off with some reading and we occasionally exchanged e-mails over the time he spent in Afghanistan.

There is little doubt a year spent outside a given dominant cultural environment broadens a person’s scope of the world as well as calls into question former assumptions. Since April Matt and I have shared a number of conversations about life and faith and what shape that takes in a place like Kabul from the perspective of someone raised in large part in the "Bible Belt" and in conservative circles. You may well imagine the conversations have been both enlightening and challenging.

Yesterday I enjoyed lunch with a friend and fellow who graduated with my brother. You could say we are at different places on a number of issues but we had a great time of fellowship and talking about our common experience pastoring churches. Wrestling through issues of leadership, change and culture always find their way into a conversation about what it means to be a pastor and be the church in our current context.

One of the things we talked about was the inherent necessity to "deconstruct" assumptions from time to time. The word "deconstruct" scares many. Ideas of nihilist philosophers/ies sets them on edge. David and I talked about the differing assumptions we face that often obscure the subject.

Sitting here reflecting on that conversation I recalled an article Matt clipped for me titled, "When ‘Christian’ Does Not Translate." The piece was written and published in "Mission Frontiers" Magazine. The stories of Salima, Chai and Asif (fictionalized names given for protection) tell of the need to re-think (deconstruct) our language so we help people to view Jesus as King rather than a system referred to as "Christianity" (also dubbed, "world religion"). In their respective contexts to assume the moniker "Christian" meant the end of conversations with those in need of Jesus.

For example,

Consider the story of Chai, a Buddhist from Thailand. "Thailand has not become a Christian country, because in the eyes of the Thai, to become a Christian means you can no longer be Thai. That’s because in Thailand ‘Christian’ equals ‘foreigner.’" So when Chair gave his life to Jesus, he began referring to himself as a "Child of God" and a "new Buddhist." He then related a subsequent incident in which he had a conversation with a Buddhist monk on a train. "After I listened to his story, I told him that he was missing one thin in life. He asked me what that was and I told him it was Jesus."

Chai continued to tell us the story in which the monk not only gave his life to Christ, but also invited Chai to come to his Buddhist temple to share about Jesus. Then Chai said, "At the beginning of our conversation the monk asked me, ‘Are you a Christian?’ and I said no. I explained that Christianity and Jesus are two different things. Salvation is in Jesus, not in Christianity. If I had said I was a ‘Christian,’ the conversation would have ended at that point." But it didn’t end. And the monk now walks with Jesus.

Most in the West would have trouble because to fail to take the designation "Christian" is akin to denying Jesus. But, a careful read of the context requires a proper emphasis upon Jesus. The article puts it this way,

These "insider movements" [referring to those like Muslim Background Believers] are not intended to hide a believer’s spiritual identity, but rather to enable those within the movement to go deeper into the cultural community – bit is Islamic, HIndu, or Buddhist – and be witnesses for Jesus within the context of that culture.

Last evening I spoke with Armando about the Kingdom of God. We share cultural differences. We come from differing ethnic perspectives. Certain descriptions would have come across transactional rather than transformative. So, we simply continued a conversation he overheard in our bible study about he Kingdom and wanted to talk further. It just may be that last evening Armando stepped into the Kingdom of God – he may well have "repented for the Kingdom of God is at hand."

We continue to talk. We will talk in ways a designation does not obscure the subject of King Jesus.

About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.

3 comments on “When a designation obscures the subject …

  1. says:

    So somehow our “Christian” word has so obscured Jesus that non-Westerners don’t want to be stained by it. Hm, well so be it, as long as they love and serve the same Master, I don’t care if they are Born Again Hindus I am willing to not worry about simple words.

  2. says:

    Yes. I found the idea that to be “Christian” meant you could not be Thai interesting. There is little doubt we can adequately get our minds around this from our particular vantage point. I have shared in conversations where the idea I cannot get my mind around soemthing means that “something” must be wrong because it does not fit my grid. It is precisely when we come to your conclusion, “when they love and serve the same Master” that we move beyond the codes, grids and catchphrases normally used to determine who is in and who is out.

  3. Anonymous says:


    I couldn’t agree more. Allowing someone else to integrate Jesus into their culture allows for a richer experience than just the ones our faith tradition might recognize as a valid expression of faith.

    And moreso, how much responsibility do we have to actually validate or invalidate another person’s experience with God? For example, The United Church of Christ has been experimenting with allowing Native Americans to integrate Jesus into their religious and eco-spiritualities. Some other Protestant missionaries have struggled with Native Americans refusal to replace all of their cultural identities with Christianity- however, allowing them to interpret Jesus on their own and thereby intergrating Jesus into their own religious sensibilities has allowed a greater ‘Jesus presence’ than has existed before.

    But all this raises tough questions about how much Jesus is enough Jesus and, what are our own responsibilities when it comes to validating other’s experience with the Kingdom of God.

    Deconstruction is helpful both for those who need Jesus and for those of us who wrestle with other people’s experiences of the Divine.

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