Trumbo, wallpaper and a bad musician

trumboLast night I watched a documentary about Dalton Trumbo (1905 – 1976).

Trumbo was a movie director that won a number of Academy Awards, however, he was not able to accept them because he had been blacklisted for being associated with the commies in an era when red was definitely not in vogue.

His name was sullied for the next 10 years when in 1947 he refused to testify in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) about how communism was impacting Hollywood.  Trumbo’s refusal to testify earned him 11 months in prison for contempt – a charge he never denied, even after his release.

Is this modus operandi a relic?

If one does not live a life that is the result of conscious decision-making that is based upon core values, what steers the course of one’s life?

Trumbo’s actions and other similarly principled lives have become a bit like wallpaper to us, in two ways.

paperFirstly, like wallpaper, they are a bit eccentric.  Like the passionate violinist who bothers us at the restaurant table for some coinage on a Friday night – quirky, but a bit odd, cute, but a little on the pongy side – they stand out from the crowd.  We go on eating our penne polo and drinking our Belgian pilsner hoping the next mouthful will be minus the accompaniment.  But this vain attempt to rid them from our dinner existence is futile. They do exist and they will impact our meal and our evening whether we succumb and dish out the spare change or not.

Never mind, it will soon be over.  The eccentric violinist who was wrecking our meal vanishes to table 34.

Out of sight and out of conscience.

People like Trumbo confront our conscience.  They stand up and stand out because they stand on principles.  We are forced to deal with them whether we like it or not.  I find ignoring them or placating them is easiest.

Secondly, people like Trumbo are like wallpaper because in the end they do disappear into the banality of our own principled-less lives.  At first they shock (good or bad) and then they becomes like the off-white paint.  You don’t see them.  They blend in and become a part of life’s clutter.  You walk in and you don’t notice the lively colour and difference anymore.

But wallpaper is wallpaper.

Blindfolded1Trumboesques make the principled-less life not only seem banal but prove that it is banal. Through a sleight of mind trick one might move the inconvenience out of sight and out of conscience, but this bares little on the real contrast between their lives and our own.

No, Trumbo’s actions against the un-American, House of Un-American Activities Committee were not something that someone just does.  People rarely stand for the sake of standing.  Most often they have worked through the issues and have decided on which hill they will die.

And so we arrive at one pertinent monologue that stood out to me in the documentary.  I forget now his exact words, but Trumbo pinpointed what he thought was the modern curse, or perhaps more accurately put, the Western modern curse.


One can decide to go with the pastels and off-whites, or one can decide to go with the bright colour.  The problem, which Trumbo highlighted, is that the sheer quantity of choice is blinding.

Rather ironic.


Missions Musings 16: The controlling legacy

bulsagaWe’ve inherited a legacy.

My mum always said, ‘If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all.’   I try to operate by that principle with my blog posting.  Ok, I revise it a little.  It goes more like this: ‘If you don’t have something to be appropriately critical, insightful or encouraging to say, then don’t say it at all.’

Hence my lack of Missions Musings in the past 6 months.  Yes, life has been that ordinary.  But here I am for number 16 to break a few missiology rules, be a little politically incorrect and probably succumb to some form of colonial indiscretion.

Here it goes:

If I was to summarise my time in Bulgaria with one word I would choose the word ‘control’.

When I reflect on my time growing up in Australia I was blessed with the freedom to do what I want, when I want and how I want.  I’m sure that I annoyed my parents, teachers, Bible college professors and the like no end.  I could choose what I would study at university.  I could choose if I wanted to get a job or not.  I had complete control – or so I felt.

I sound like a spoiled brat!

Whatever I may have been I rarely felt as though I was fighting the system to be able to live my life.

Since arriving in Bulgaria we have felt as though we have been doing nothing but fighting the system.  We have felt like a piece of property, or a possession.  We were a resource to be used as the owner felt.  We were not our own.  Whether is was government, church denominations, individual churches, other organizational bodies, and sometimes even friends, we were at their mercy and under their control… well, so they thought.

Why was this, and was this necessarily a bad thing?

I’ve thought a fair bit about this issue because of the pervading reach of it.  My conclusions are not conclusions per se, but thoughts about how this cultural phenomena might be comprehended by a foreigner trying to make it long-term in this country.

brotherFirstly, communism is the elephant in the room.  Control was how the communist rulers perpetuated ideology, and perhaps more importantly its own rule.  If you wanted to head to Sofia for the weekend you would have to report to the police when you left your village and report to the police when you arrived in Sofia.  You could not pack up and move villages or cities easily for work, etc.   If you were a teacher you would holiday with the other teachers.  The engineers with the engineers, and so on, and so on.  The family was dismembered and subjected to the control of the state.

It is clear that this method of operation is still a major part of the DNA of the government structures and voices within it, the non-govenment structures, and also the church.

I’ve observed that the release of control to others in nearly non-existent.  It is closely guarded.  Micro-managing is the natural tendency.  Dissenting voices are not welcome and quickly shut down.  There is next to no leadership development and handover.

As you could therefore imagine, our feeling of being controlled is a fairly normal thing.  A day in the life of 7.2 million Bulgarians.  Our experience is not an exception.  We are just another stat in the fat part of the bell curb experiencing the same thing as everybody else.  It is culture clash.  We are resources to be controlled.  We are a resource that is available for the leaders to use when they see fit.  If you don’t fit then you get thrown out.  It’s really that simple.

Secondly, the culture of control, especially within churches, was in part set up and perpetuated by the workers that have gone ahead of us.  That is, we’ve inherited a legacy of missions that was characterised by control.

Let me explain.  I believe that all cultures should be viewed through the lens of the Bible and critiqued appropriately.  After the changes (late 80’s), it was imperative that the church was lensgiven the skills to evaluate how they have been impacted by communism.  They needed to be able to evaluate themselves in light of the gospel.  They needed to become something from the start that was characterised by biblical principles rather than something that was characterised by assumed communist ones.  Once the changes had happen and the tsunami of ‘missionaries’ flooded in, it was their duty to set up proper working relationships with whatever existing churches there were and the ones that subsequently sprung up.  It appears that these missionaries set up autocratic church structures and relationships, and served within them as such.

Our experience has been that there is a general tendency for churches to treat ‘missionaries’ (forgive the use of the horrible term!) as a commodity.  When I look at the recent past this is not an uncommon story for most workers.  They’ve been subjected to church/denomination control in no uncertain terms.  If they haven’t performed as they ‘should have’ then they were given the royal boot.  This treatment seems to me to be the mere out working of a certain mission legacy that was implemented by the post-fall workers, perpetuated by certain missiological practices since, that is now turning around and biting us newbies on the behind!

Question: Why have we been subject to such a culture of control?

Answer: Bulgaria’s communist past and mission legacy.

I’m not so sure that I’ve nailed this, but I think that I am getting close.  I’d really appreciate my Bulgarian friends to give some input into this.  Being on the inside you would have a much different perspective than me, which I am really interested to hear.


Emotional or Forgetful?

Emotional?I found this map the other day that was put together by Mr Gallop here.

Basically, this represents the percentage of people who have answered ‘Yes’ to these questions:

  1. Did you feel well rested yesterday?
  2. Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?
  3. Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?
  4. Did you do or learn something interesting yesterday?
  5. Did you experience the following feelings yesterday – enjoyment, physical pain, worry, sadness, stress and anger?

It does make a bit of sense.  The former Soviet Blok leads the way in being considered least emotional, whereas the South Americans are saturated in the purple haze of emotion.

I must say the Democratic Republic of Congo is a bit of an outlier.  In a world of pain they come in flush with emotion.  And is that Oman out there?  What’s in the water out there that makes them so different to any other Arab state?

I did find it interesting that the Balkan states are normally considered as very emotional, but they fared very badly.

And what are we to make of Greenland, Papua New Guinea, Finland(?) and one of the Stans?  They all seem a little grey for no reason at all.

This survey could tell us something very profound about history, politics, religion, family environments, cost of living, etc, but if we look very carefully at the questions they are all asking about yesterday.

It could well be that some countries are just more forgetful than the others.

Borovtsi – Serene Simplicity

Many of you might not know that I live in a small village called Borovtsi (Боровци) in the North West of Bulgaria.

Borovtsi is a quaint little place where in the summer the locals use their carts and donkeys to move the feed that they have grown to a store house for the winter.  When they are not in the fields they can be seen working their gardens for fresh fruit and vegetables.  Later in the summer they begin the process of bottling, conserving and distilling the grown produce for the winter.  The cabbage is pickled, the egg-plant (aubergine) is preserved, and the plums and grapes are put to good use in making rakia and wine, respectively.

There isn’t a nightlife to speak of.  There is one pub that the locals frequent for a beer or shot or three of rakia.  We feel a little like the out-of-town cowboy in a western movie who walks into the bar.  The piano man stops, the bartender ducks and pairs of eyes trace us across the floor.  Once we sit, the room returns to normal.  I chuckle.

Today, I can see the not too distant snow capped mountains.  They will remain like a picture perfect postcard until Spring when the snow will melt, filling the rivers with crystal clear icy water.  During this time the village comes alive.  My friend Angel also comes alive.  He loves to head into the mountain streams to catch trout.  It makes for a great day or night’s fun, and also a simple but tasty meal.

In the village of Borovtsi the roaming geese can make a racket.  The donkeys stink.  The chickens always walk around without purpose.  The pigs are out of sight, thankfully.  The odd horse is chained to a pole and has been generously given 4 meters of slack.  The black dog with no collar seems to have no home, but does not go without love or food.  He takes each day in his stride, finding a nice quiet place in the sunshine or out of the snow for a late afternoon nap, and a warmer location for the chilly night.

Religion is subtly present.  On any given day a newcomer can be schooled in the local religious traditions.  The Orthodox priest in his garb leads the procession of mourners who walk slowly and quietly to the outskirts of the village where the cemetery is located.  The only noise is the hum of the old 60’s style hearse in second gear and the small band that trails the procession, which is comprised of a lone bass drum, trumpet and accordion.  They play slow and melancholic tunes.

If you were to engage with a local from the village of Borovtsi in a discussion about God you would most probably meet an old form of lingering communist propaganda.  They would probably reflect on atheistic categories that they were taught at school.  For others, early post-communism propaganda propagated by the Orthodox church holds sway, which seems to taint one’s opinion of the Catholic or Protestant churches.

I could show you the local Orthodox church that figures prominently in the village square.  It has not operated for many years and remains silent but for the not uncommon funerals, and very uncommon weddings.

The bread from the corner store is to die for although it only lasts one day because it contains no preservatives.  The store is also good for unknown brands of coffee, tissues, feta cheese and salami, of course.  The beer section is well stocked and cheap, but don’t make the mistake that I made in not returning the bottles once used.

When my wife Katie and I invited the workers who have been building the training centre to a Bible study this sunday afternoon, we were pleasantly surprised that nearly all of them said they will come.

In one instance Katie went to confirm with one of the guards if he was coming.  When questioned he responded with, ‘Of course.  So is my wife.  We’re coming to hear what Dan has to say.’  I chuckled.

In another instance, my mobile rang.  Before I could answer it the bringing cut out – it only rang once!  I called the number and discovered it was a 33 year old intellectually impaired man who works on site here too.  He was asking if we could give him a ride from a nearby village called Berkovitsa (Берковица) to the Bible study.  Of course this was not a problem.  When we asked if his house mate would like to come he responded with, ‘Of course he is coming.’  I had to chuckle again.  Derr, what was I thinking.

So on Sunday at four in the afternoon up to 18 people of both genders ranging between the ages of 21-72 will meet in our small apartment to read the Bible, learn how to read the Bible and learn as an introduction to the ongoing series that God is the creator and we, humanity, are the created.

In the hum drum of my own life the beautiful simplicity of this picture brings a certain clarity to my own life.

The Lord my God; my service to him and to those around me that cannot say the same.

– serenely simple.

Dumitru Staniloae and Knowing God

I’ve been reading through volume one of Dumitru Staniloae’s culmination of his life’s theological work, ‘Orthodox Dogmatic Theology: The Experience of God‘.  

Let me first tell you about   Dumitru Staniloae (1903-1993) because he is was a great man – one to be respected.

Staniloae grew up in a poor farming family in Romania and it was in this setting that Staniloae developed a love for the Bible at a young age.  He later studied theology and taught theology throughout Europe.  He laboured on translating into Romanian the Philokalia, the works of Symeon the New Theologian, and Palamas amongst others.  Let me round out this little bio with some words that he used to describe his time in jail and a concentration camp during the Romanian communist period.  He states these gracious words:

An experience like any other, only somewhat difficult for my family…To carry one’s cross is the normal condition of the Christian, and so there is no need to talk of it.

Amazing.  With this in mind let’s move on.

The first topic that Staniloae looks at in his Orthodox Dogmatic Theology is revelation.  In chapter 1 he begins with natural revelation, before moving on to supernatural revelation in chapter 2, and then in chapter 3 looking at the relationship between scripture and tradition.

This post is an exploration of the Staniloae’s conception of creation’s role in revealing God, or his doctrine of natural revelation.

When it comes to natural revelation Staniloae does not focus on creation as one might immediately think.  His focus is the pinnacle of creation, namely humanity.  After all, this is the aspect of creation that God described as very good, and that bears his image.  More specifically, Staniloae narrows his focus on humanity’s rationality as the central component of natural revelation.  Interesting, hey?

As the pinnacle of creation the world has been made for humanity and not the other way around.  With regard to the characteristic of rationality, Staniloae would say that humanity lives within a context that is comprised of things (animals, plants and inanimate objects) that are irrational.  Humanity is unique in this regard.  But what does it mean to be rational?

Staniloae identifies rationality as the capacity to make sense of data.  In this way, humanity is set apart from every other creation.  Plants or ants, for example, do not seek to make meaning of their existence.  Humans on the other hand strive to understand themselves in their world, and they use creation to come to this understanding.  Staniloae states:

The destiny of the cosmos is found in man, not man’s destiny in the cosmos.  This is shown not only by the fact that the cosmos is the object of human consciousness and knowledge (not the reverse), but also by the fact that the entire cosmos serves human existence in a practical way (p. 5).

Humanity is in a perpetual state of trying to make sense of the world.  This desire for meaning is not merely a thought exercise, but a legitimate attempt to find purpose.  Humans are by design meaning seekers and makers, which leads to all sorts of issues, not least the dilemma of not being able to find any meaning that makes sense of the world in which we live.

Staniloae states:

For our cruellest grief is the lack of meaning, that is, the lack of an eternal meaning to our life and deeds.  The necessity of this meaning is intimately connected to our being (p. 10).

As designed rational beings, humans long for meaning, and when we do not find it, and he suggests here that all of humanity at some stage has not found it, we lose our sense of self and reason to live.

So what kind of meaning does Staniloae suggest we lack and therefore seek?

Eternal existence!  In searching for meaning, humanity has an innate will to live forever.  The basic premise is that humanity desires a life invested in meaning.  Ridding meaning of life, renders meaning meaningless.  In this sense meaning and life are a couplet.  For this reason, the rational human desires meaning and a form of life that perpetuates the value of such meaning.  Staniloae describes a life that is an eternal, meaningful existence within the reality where that meaning is found and based.

It is at this point that Staniloae turns to the creator.

So what is the basis of the eternal existence?  I mean, what gives this existence meaning?  Staniloae’s answer to this question is predictable (if you’re down with Orthodox theology) – communion with an eternal existent person.

The meaning that the rational being arrives at is not eternal if it is bound to the created experience, because the created experience is characterised by death, thus rendering meaning meaningless.  Meaning must therefore be arrived at through an external and similarly rational source that transcends our earthly reality.

Underpinning the next phase of Staniloae’s natural revelation is the idea that objects of reason are the only kinds of being that are capable of interpersonal dialogue.  Yes, dogs are a man’s best friend but Staniloae would argue (and I think we would agree) that dogs are not capable of the kind of relational dialogue that other rational beings are capable of.  The creator, as the source of rationality, is capable of interpersonal dialogue – what’s more, eternal interpersonal dialogue.  If the finite human being can somehow become a partaker in the eternal existence that the creator being enjoys, then there is hope for an eternal existence that has meaning.

Thus we find distant meaning – relationship with the ultimate rational reality.  It is a reality that has not been attained, but one worth seeking out.  We can also see that creation is incapable of outlining or providing a means for attaining it.  The dilemma is stated and the answer is given, but the means is absent.

Staniloae gives a nice summary of his thoughts on his doctrine of natural revelation on page 12:

Through all things, God gives himself to man, and man to God.  This is, in general, the content of faith asserted by the meaning of existence, a faith which compels recognition on the basis of the evidence of nature.

Now let me offer a few points worth thinking about:

1.  Staniloae identifies the problem that humanity faces as not one of rejection of the creator as we read about in Roman 1:18-20, but rather of unfulfilled potential and lacking meaning as a result of being dislocated from the creator.

2.  Connected with the first point is the idea that Staniloae does not bring to bear the consequences of rejecting the creator on humanity, namely the judgement that Paul talks about in Romans 1:18.

3.  The issue that is raised by Staniloae that undergirds the human problem is stated in terms of the mind, a lack of meaning.  Romans 2:15 speaks of the issue being one that involves the mind and also heart.

4.  Staniloae’s use of humanity as the grounds for a doctrine of natural revelation is an interesting starting point.  God has created humanity so that they contain his image.  Surely, humanity should in some way point to God in a way that is as obvious(?) as a majestic sunset or awesome cloud formation or wave rolling in.

Missions Musings 9 – A Moral Dilemma

This book is a real challenge – What is the Mission of the Church

To be frank I think they drop the ball on this one.  I know it sounds a little harsh, but I have never read a book that has got me going (in a negative sense) as much as this one.  The reason this book stirs me so viciously is because we are of the same ilk theologically, and the content that it deals with hits close to home.  So I am trying to put this aside and appraise it carefully.

Let me address the the first half of part two of the book

So far their thesis is that Gospel proclamation and discipleship are the sole content of the mission of the church.  Check out my first post on this topic to find out more about this.

In part 2 of the book they develop an argument as to why social action cannot be a part of the church’s mission.  How do they do this?

Firstly, they outline that the Kingdom of God does not grow, cannot be enlarged by any (social) action of a believer, and has no earthly content in the sense of land, etc.

Secondly, they tell us that one is deemed to be just if one does not actively oppress, hurt, favour, etc.

Thirdly, by virtue of the rule of moral proximity they describe how one is free from the duty of solving the world’s needs.

Fourthly, they state that the Christian idea of social action is not an ought but something that should come from a desire to love.

To begin with, I agree with their first point that the Kingdom of God is a theological category that describes a spiritual reality.  It cannot be enlarged by my or your effort.  I wholeheartedly believe the Kingdom of God is about the reign of God.  However, that social action is impotent in this regard does not open the flood gates as the book might suggest to proving that the mission of the church is not oriented in some way towards social action.

Next, I will deal with the last three points in one whack.

I agree with the authors that one is just if one does not engage in unjust actions.  But what is an unjust action?  They state, ‘Justice, as a biblical category, in not synonymous with anything and everything we feel would be good for the world‘.  They go on to say that social justice is a ‘more prosaic category in the Bible.  Doing justice means not showing partiality, not stealing, not swindling, not taking advantage of the weak because they are too uninformed or unconnected to stop you.  We dare say that most Christians in America are not guilty of these sorts of injustices, nor should they be made to that they are‘ (p. 175).

Prosaic!  I agree that their conclusion about social action in the Bible is prosaic, but is that conclusion correct.  When I read the Bible the depiction of the social call (whatever that may be at the moment) is far from prosaic. The call is explicit, often, and far reaching.

Their definition of what is just is based upon a biblical category, which I don’t think has been appropriately applied to our modern context.  For example, they say that one should help the weak (p. 170), but what did that mean in the biblical setting, and what does it mean now?  The weak person is not your neighbour’s slave, or the widow that picks up the leftover grain after you finish reaping your field.  It is the person in a sweatshop that receives scraps for making our shoes and clothes.  It is the person that is born on the other side of the city that is in a cycle of dependence.  It is the person with HIV.  It is the 14 year old girl who has a 2 month old baby.  They are the refugees.

Then there is the rule of moral proximity.  Essentially it goes like this: ‘The closer the moral proximity, the greater the moral obligation’ (p. 183).  But surely we must recognise that what is proximate has changed.  Today, everything is proximate.  We can get anywhere in 24 hours.  We get money anywhere in a flash.  We can learn about anything with a click of a button.  If we were to operate by this measure (I’m not saying we should, they are), then due to out proximity to issues we are morally obliged, are we not?  How can we possibly say that we are not proximate to the needs of our world in this day and age?

Finally, the authors defend the idea that social action is not an ought but a love response.  Of course, if it is a love response it cannot be the church’s mission because it would take second place to the Great Commission – a command.   However, they contradict themselves on this point.  They state:  ‘The problem is that social justice has too often been sold with condemnation by implication and the heavy hand of ought.  It seems much better to simply encourage churches and individual Christians to love‘ (p. 192).  They state with regard to the Good Samaritan, ‘we are to be a neighbour to those needs we can meet‘  (p. 165).  Now we’re talking.  If you can, you should.  Then they state: ‘because we have been given grace in Christ, we ought to extend grace to others in his name‘ (p. 173).  They previously claimed that the heavy hand of ought was the mechanism by which believers were guilted into social action; why then do they use that very same heavy hand of ‘ought’ here?  I think it is because we cannot escape the truth that believers ought to engage in social action.

Further to this, what do they mean when they say, ‘It seems much better’ and ‘positively enjoined’ with regard to why a believer should engage in social action?  Since when has the ambiguous measure of ‘much better’ been the standard of anything?  Jesus never uses such soft imperatives?  What does Jesus say?  Does he encourage us or enjoin us to love one another?  Or with regard to the good Samaritan does he command us to go and do likewise?  Does he suggest that we love the Lord our God and love our neighbour if we so feel the urge?  Not at all!

The authors need to prove that social action is not required of a believer (ought), but is rather some kind of subsequent prerogative.  If they can prove this then social action cannot possible comprise the mission of the church – but they have not, thus far.

*Some of the page numbers may be out a little because I am using a kindle version which gives me a page range.