Tag Archives: christian

“Missionary” needs a facelift

Above is the video of my favorite public speaking gig so far this year – the September 27 University Vespers at my alma mater, Andrews University, for Homecoming, 2013. About 700 students, alumni, faculty, staff and community members attended. I dedicated this speech to giving the idea of missionary work (which so often elicits negative reactions) a facelift.

The speech was actually an extension of one of the biggest goals of our trip around the world this year: to rethink how we can best live lives of international service. For Jammie and I, faith and service are very closely linked so we were also very keen on experimenting with how to live out our faith more tangibly through acts of service.

CultureMutt readers are a diverse bunch so whether or not you come from a Christian background, I would love your comments on how you think faith communities should reinvent the approach they take to sharing their messages around the world.

For now, here’s why I think the term “missionary” needs a facelift:

“Missionary” sounds oppressive.  Historically, missionaries were often backed by the military might of oppressive colonial powers. Religion was often forced on unwilling converts.  Today, centuries later, the bad taste is still in the mouths of many.  In many cases, those that go out as missionaries have more material wealth and education than those they are trying to reach.  This often results in an unhealthy dynamic where people convert to the beliefs of these missionaries more in order to gain access to these resources rather than because they are sincerely convicted of a religious ideology.

“Missionary” sounds kooky.  I grew up as the child of missionaries. We lived with other missionaries, a good portion of which were straight-up weird.  You got the feeling that they were working abroad, less for noble, save-the-world motives and more because their cult-like dress sense, odd social behaviors and blanket rejection of anything in pop culture that brings a smile, simply would not fit in back home.

“Missionary” sounds out-of-touch.  So often missionaries are only effective in distant lands but would be of no effect back home.  Often they are able to leverage their status as expats (typically from more developed countries) to gain a platform abroad and in the process, much of what they transmit ends up being thinly-veiled Western cultural ideas as opposed to any genuinely helpful spiritual insights.

“Missionary” sounds fundamentalist.  I’m not sure why it is true but so often, people that opt to work as missionaries have an extremely narrow definition of faith.  They cling to dogma for dear life and are rarely able to see the big picture.  The faith that gets transmitted is therefore very narrow and close-minded.  It is not a generous, accepting faith but rather an unhealthy VIP list for spiritual gold diggers who think they are the only ones headed for sublime bliss in the afterlife.

Being a missionary need entail none of the above.  Alright, here’s where I’ll get on my soap box:  It’s time for a new generation to redefine what it means to be a missionary.  There is nothing wrong with sharing authentic faith.  It’s actually a good thing. There is nothing wrong with telling your friends about the ideas, stories and truths that have had a life-changing effect on you.  There is a way to be an enthusiastic believer without stooping to the unfortunate depths of many a missionary gone before.

Start the facelift in the comment section!  There are going to be different takes on this one but to me personally, missionary work should be about what I call “savvy, global do-gooding”.  It should not be about forcing ideology but more about an open discussion about how to improve the world around us, fused with practical acts of service that actually help our fellow human beings.  I am convinced that, at the very least, this is where all so-called missionaries should start.

I would love your input and ideas.  Leave a comment below on what you think modern missionaries should be doing.  Be as open or as controversial as you like, this is about conversation, not about one right answer.

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Why Aid Should Never be Used as Bait for Religion

In a replica of an old Thai church at Ancient Siam, near Bangkok....

It pissed me off. I just couldn’t handle it. It was as if you had to buy into Jesus before they would help you!” Annika set her coffee cup down hard on the table and looked across at me.

Jammie and I had been doing weekly orphanage and prison visits here in Bangkok as part of our service work. We’d caught wind of some interesting work being done to encourage entrepreneurship among young women in the Bangkok slums and, here I was, quizzing Annika, a Swedish expat, about it.

“I finally had to part ways with the Christians I was working with in the slums,” she said. “I am not a Christian, I just want to help. They, on the other hand seemed to think that it was only OK to help if they racked up a few conversions.”

I sympathized with Annika. I am a Christian and the quid pro quo she was complaining about bothered me too. It reminded me of the time I had done some research on homeless shelters on skid row in Los Angeles. The one I visited made you sit through Christian chapel before they would feed you. I admired the generosity of the shelter and their desire to help. But I couldn’t shake the sick feeling I had about their methods.

It all seemed wrong somehow. Here’s my reasoning. I would love to hear your ideas in the comment section:

1). You are exploiting weakness – All kinds of scandals are bred around aid organizations. When one party with ample resources is helping another that is desperate, power is often abused. When Christian (or other religious) aid organizations require Bible studies, religious services or outright conversion in return for food and shelter, that is exploitation, plain and simple, no matter how much the administrators believe they are “helping”.

2). Faith just doesn’t work that way – You can’t force faith. I find my faith to be the most meaningful thing in my life. But I’m willing to bet that I wouldn’t feel that way if it had been forced on me. There simply is no buy-in with coercion. As the Christian colonizers of old proved when they forced conquered peoples into baptism: faith, when forced, is only skin deep (the locals retained their ancient religious beliefs while putting on an outward religious “show” for their colonizers).

3). The “What’s in it for me?” factor – You can’t offer genuine, focused aid to someone if, all the while, you have an ulterior motive. If you are simply trying to fill pews at church, your “aid” efforts will come across as hollow and insincere. The aid is about the people being reached, not about the giver or his views.

4). Aid becomes a transaction – When people catch on and realize that they simply need to profess faith to receive aid, many will gladly do so. Faith becomes currency and the whole process is corrupted. Rather than help the disadvantaged become self-sufficient, this “faith for aid” transaction encourages dependency and dishonesty.

5). You cheapen religion – I am not against religion. I am actually hugely in favor of a sincere, compassionate, generous out-living of faith through the practice of religion. But trying to purchase believers through aid packages cheapens religion. It is completely shortsighted and makes a mockery of true religion.

Obviously, not everyone agrees with my reasoning. There are passionate defenders of charities and nonprofits that require at least some exposure to religion before they will help the disadvantaged. They argue that this is the best way to really help those that are suffering, that they are helping the “whole” person.

What do you think? Where is the line? What is the best way for religious charities and other organizations to offer help to those that need it? Tell me in the comments.

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Bjorn Karlman Bangkok, Thailand


Christian, Not Crazy: Some Almost-Organized Thoughts on Faith

Photo 176I struggled with this post.  It’s different from most in that I’m not writing directly about American politics and I am not trying to write on top of the news.  This post is about context.  Specifically, a context rooted in faith.  My faith.  Intellectual suicide?  I don’t think so.  Let me explain.

One of the things that most fascinated me when I started following American politics from across the Atlantic while I was living in the UK, was how openly politicos talked about faith.  If anyone with political aspirations in Europe did anything more than attend a sterile Easter service at a state church, Europeans would write him or her off as a religious nut.  Not so in the United States.

Despite his moral flexibility and playboy approach to saving the world, Bill Clinton was raised Southern Baptist and regularly sought the counsel of religious leaders like Jesse Jackson (who coincidentally was having an affair while counseling Bill on his Monica-related troubles).  We all know that George W. Bush was a man of faith.  His faith was positively troubling as we witnessed his crusade of a post 9/11 foreign policy that permanently sullied America’s image abroad and did more to draw religion-inspired battle lines than any American move in decades.  As cerebral as Barack Obama is, he was famously aligned with the controversial preacher Jeremiah Wright as a member of his flock when Wright spat out the words “God damn America.”  Multiple presidents have sought to address social problems through government funding of faith-based humanitarian programs.

Apart from the faith of recent and current American leaders, the American political landscape is hugely influenced by the religious right which, although somewhat fragmented currently, is enormously influential in any election.  This group of evangelicals ranges from run-of-the-mill casual believers with nominal conservative values and a penchant for apple pie and Nascar to raving lunatics that bomb abortion clinics, harbor closet (or devastating open) hate for minorities and spend their free time trying to legislate the teaching of Creationism in schools and the flying of racist confederate flags in front of state buildings.

More than once on CultureMutt, I have critiqued the evangelical contingent in America.  I grew up as Seventh-day Adventist and as a current member of this conservative evangelical community I feel particularly responsible for the messages that come out of the evangelical camp.  That’s why I:

Blasted Beck over his ridiculous critique of church social justice programs:  Poetic Justice for Beck’s Social Justice Rant

Found this way to lure young male congregants hilarious:  Pound the Other Cheek: The Advent of Christian Fight Clubs

Thought that this approach to evangelical sexual morality was extremely naive:  Virginity 2.0 – Post Cherry-Pop Purity.

Sincerely hoped that religious crazies and their know-nothing dogma were losing steam:  Fundamentalism Loses its Mojo

As faith and politics are very intertwined and as I am so drawn to talking about both, I thought it only fair to say a few words about where I personally stand when it comes to religion.  Some of my readers have, in one way or another, asked me what I personally believe in.  If you have read CultureMutt over the past several months it won’t come as surprise that I am a cultural and political liberal.  When it comes to religion, I hate evangelical cheese and over-simplification of faith; I look for vomit buckets when I hear of attempts to legislate Christian morality; I am pro-choice; I am no literalist when it comes to my approach to reading religious texts; and I am all for gay rights, including the right to marry.

Having said all that, I do believe in the transcendent, that there is a presence that far eclipses the limited human perspective.  I am a religious tourist and have found meaning in all of the major world religious traditions.  My best friend is a Muslim and through my conversations with him I am drawn to a monotheistic approach to faith.  I am convicted by the Christian narrative of a compassionate deity that redeems humans in the grander cosmic sense as well as in our day-to-day reality.

What I feel most passionately about when it comes to my faith is this focus on bringing redemption in the here and now.  I don’t believe, as some do, that actively practicing faith requires an end to intelligent thought.  Rather, my faith challenges me to use critical thinking in finding a humane response to human problems.  I believe that authentic faith breeds understanding, generosity and compassion.  This is why I am passionate about fighting for social justice and finding systemic solutions for today’s social problems.  Poverty, illness, lack of education, drastic social inequality, racism – in my book these are very real manifestations of evil and I support a faith that combats each.

I don’t think I am entirely “right” in my articulation of reality and faith.  I know I have a lot to learn, that I am doubtless wrong on multiple fronts. I’ll listen to your thoughts because they will enhance my understanding of reality.  I intentionally held off on articulating any personal religious convictions on CultureMutt because this blog is not meant to be a forum for the discussion of the fine points of doctrine.  I simply thought that a little context at this point regarding my personal faith-related convictions would help explain where I am coming from.  Looking forward to your thoughts.

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Bjorn Karlman

Fundamentalism Loses its Mojo

street post with heaven ave and hell st signs

A fun-filled decade of evangelically-driven American foreign and domestic policy is behind us and despite best efforts to inject last minute sex-appeal à la Palin, Christian fundamentalism is fallen. Helpful clarifications and labels like the Axis of Evil are out of vogue.  Whereas previously, issues of national and international importance were seen through the handy prism of Dubya’s good vs. evil rhetoric, it looks as though we are actually going to have to think for ourselves again.

But the fact that Christian fundamentalism is losing its mojo does not mean that Christians are on the retreat.  If anything, moderate proponents of the faith are emerging from the shadows.  “I am a Closet Christian” confesses Ada Calhoun in a Dec 21, 2009 Salon.com article.  A New Yorker, Calhoun talks about her fear of being outed as a Christian: “Why am I so paranoid? I’m not cheating on my husband, committing crimes or doing drugs. But those are battles my cosmopolitan, progressive friends would understand. Many of them had to come out — as gay, as alcoholics, as artists in places where art was not valued. To them, my situation is far more sinister: I am the bane of their youth, the boogeyman of their politics, the very thing they left their small towns to escape. I am a Christian.”

Agonizing about how to verbalize her views on faith, Calhoun says, “it’s hard to talk about any of this without sounding dumb, or like a zealot, or ridiculous. And who wants to be lumped in with all the other Christians, especially the ones you see on TV protesting gay marriage, giving money to charlatans, and letting priests molest children?”

Moderate Muslims face a similar challenge.  After a decade of bad PR, the struggle remains to reshape Islam in the coming decade.  “The good news is that those Muslims who espouse militant ideologies no longer find a physical home in mainstream Muslim America… the New York-based al-Qaeda supporting extremist duo that calls itself “Revolution Muslim” has been reduced to heckling mosque-goers from the sidewalk,” says Shahed Amanullah in altmuslim.com / Global perspectives on Muslim life, politics & culture.

“Muslims Denounce Terrorism / Terror Has No Religion” reads a bumper sticker sold by the The American Muslim.  It’s hard to battle terror with talk of peace but as more and more voices demand an end to extremism, the tide may be turning.  It doesn’t hurt that Obama gave his first interview as President to an Arab broadcaster; that his Cairo speech was well-received or the fact that his envoy to address the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is seen as more balanced than his predecessor.

What the coming decade holds is anyone’s guess.  Hopefully, a new tone is being set. “We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things….” said Obama in his Inaugural Address. Dodging any delusional salvation-through-Obama drool, perhaps there still is hope that childishly extreme religious rhetoric has seen its heyday in the US.

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Bjorn Karlman

Grinding: The New “Can I buy you a drink?”

disco queenHere’s the Wikipedia definition for grinding: “Grinding is a type of close partner dance where two or more dancers rub their bodies (especially the genitalia) against each other in a sexually suggestive manner. It has gained popularity at high school and middle school dances especially in the United States where there have been cases of administrators attempting to ban it due to its explicit nature and incidence involving injury.”

Grinding or “freaking” on the dance floor is completely divisive in the reaction it elicits. People under the age of 40 are well accustomed to it and accept it as a fairly normal variety of club dance. Older generations are horrified and find it grotesque and inappropriate. It’s classic culture clash. Siri Agrell in Canada’s The Globe and Mail (November 22, 2007)  says that, “a growing body of research has found that sexually explicit styles of dancing do not lead to casual sex. To those who study human sexuality, modern dance club culture is actually more indicative of an evolution in courtship.”

Agrell quotes Columbia University socio-medical sciences professor, Dr. Munoz-Laboy who says, “Participants in these dances are actually bound by “an elaborate set of cultural rules – a veritable etiquette of gendered scripts for appropriate male and female conduct.” In a study published this month in the journal Culture, Health & Sexuality, Dr. Munoz-Laboy wrote that, “young women are the gatekeepers of dancing boundaries in the hip-hop scene. Even though most dances in hip-hop clubs involve grinding … there are levels of physical closeness that men cannot cross.” This seems to accurately reflect your average club etiquette where grinding is OK but overly tactile (male or female) dancers often end up shunned, nursing a lonely beer outside.

Agrell notes that Kingston physician Jonathan Huber, 32, published a report called “Sexually Overt Approaches in Singles Bars” in The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality. In it, he states that grinding is simply part of a new script for twentysomething flirting and picking up.  “It’s the new ‘Can I buy you a drink?'”

Some would cite this as indisputable evidence that cultural norms since the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s have grown increasingly base and animalistic and that the answer to it all is a cultural clampdown of fundamentalist fervor. Others, like Huber, take a more anthropological approach to grinding and see this as a neutral evolution in social interaction.

“This is a complete reversal,” he said of the behaviour he observed in bars in Ottawa and Guelph, Ont., while doing his research. “The touching happens at the beginning and only do the other things flow after that. It’s sexually overt on paper, but the intent is not sexually overt.” (The Globe and Mail)

All of this said, it is hard to discount the views of cultural conservatives that are quick to claim that this kind of social interaction, whether or not it leads to sex, is not helpful if what you want is to find a quality romantic partner. Just because grinding is acceptable club behavior and may even be part of modern courtship doesn’t make it a substitute for coffee and conversation.  Fair point.  But understanding the ‘ins and outs’ of grinding will at least make you a savvier and perhaps less pervy addition to the dating marketplace.

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Bjorn Karlman