Cultural engagement is a fairly recent development in the course of religious understanding. D.T. Niles was the first prominent modern Christian theologian to complain about how Christianity tries to overwhelm rather than engage other cultures. His comments were directed at the Protestants in Southern Asia. Niles had a lot to do with the formation of the East Asian Christian Conference (now called the Christian Conference of Asia) which famously encouraged adaptation of cultural arts and traditions. Protestants weren’t alone in this, nor first. Mother Theresa of Calcutta famously adopted the Indian sari as the costume for the Sisters of Charity following the lead of 17th century Jesuits in China who portrayed themselves as comparable to Confucian scholars.
However, the “great missionary movement” of 1800 to 1920 which turned into the ecumenical movement of 1920 to 2000 (using purely arbitrary terms and dates) was more concerned about the promotion of a Christian counter-culture. H. Richard Niebuhr analyzed this critically in his highly regarded 1951 book Christ and Culture.
Here in Thailand any attempts at cultural engagement or even efforts to adopt cultural forms were sporadic and controversial. The hymnal of the mainline Protestant Church of Christ in Thailand contains less than half a dozen hymns or canticles that are authentic traditional Thai melodies and even fewer that are original compositions in Thai style. The use of Thai classical and folk instruments was vigorously opposed in the church when first introduced and still has not replaced western instruments on a regular basis in any church I know of.
Very few architectural attempts have been made by Catholics or Protestants to emulate or adopt Thai religious structural forms. When Ruamrudee Catholic Church was built in 1954 in the style of a Thai Buddhist vihara or assembly hall (see: www.holyredeemerbangkok.net then click on English and then on “history” to see a picture of this outstanding building), it was conservative Buddhists who protested this as an attack on Buddhism. Their criticism when it flared up back 40 years ago is reminiscent of the Muslim protest last year against Christians using the term Allah for God in the new editions of the Malay Bible.
Meanwhile, the Church is constantly contending with those who persist in portraying Christianity as a cultural invasion. When squalls break out they sound not unlike the Christian defenders in America who rail against the rise of Islamic groups. Multi-culturalism is a hard product to sell.
Christianity is still widely (almost universally in Thailand) regarded as a foreign faith. This is constantly being reinforced by such evidence as the use of European music in Christian worship and non-Asian portrayals of Jesus in movies like this year’s Son of God. Sallman’s “Head of Christ” is found in a vast majority of Christian homes in Thailand. By contrast, Buddha is Asian, not exclusively Thai, but certainly closer to home than Jesus.
Wouldn’t it have been better for the church to narrow the cultural gap?
It has been more convenient for the churches here in Thailand to refrain from cultural engagement. There was, however, another option that was also largely rejected. That was a form of cultural innovation. In the face of daunting opposition to the adaptation of classical cultural forms, all of them being royal or religious, in an attempt to carve a culturally unique niche for the Church, some architects tried to design churches that are distinctly Thai and Christian. Function took precedence over symbolic tradition. Taylor Potter’s design for First Thai Church in Chiang Mai and Amos Ih-Tiao Chang’s design for the chapel at Bangkok Christian College, are highly recognizable as one-of-a-kind structures. The more recent and spectacular Roman Catholic cathedral in Udorn and the chapel at Saeng Tham Theological Seminary in Nakhon Pathom are edifices that largely spurn old traditions. Ed Sue’s design for the Henry Luce Chapel of Payap University is innovative rather than classic, as well. Left to their own devices, however, Thai congregations show a remarkable consistency in preferring rectangular buildings with a steeple with a cross on top. Scores of very similar churches have been built in the last 25 years and several are being constructed right now.
What is the real motive for sticking to the Protestant classic, like the church in Prae pictured above? In the context of the villages and small towns of Thailand, those churches make a statement. They say, “We are Christian.” That is more important than saying, “We are Thai.” Beyond that simple affirmation, which is as far as most people care to go, the display of Christian art and forms is to identify with the worldwide Church. Pews, hymns, pulpits, crosses in front, bells if they are available – those are ways of joining the Christian tribe. There is no compelling reason to stress a national cultural distinction, or to try to deny that the roots of Christian culture are Western.
Even if a demographic shift occurs, moving the center of Christian population south and east, being part of the large Christian culture will be of greater importance than being uniquely Thai.
I saw on Facebook that it was Matthew Vines' birthday just the other day. It reminded me of his famous address to members of his home church in Wichita, Kansas in which he gave what hundreds of thousands have come to believe is the best and most careful rejection of the traditional anti-gay interpretation of the 6 most often-used verses to contend that homosexuality is unbiblical.
If you are interested, here is a link to that famous talk by young Matthew Vines last year:
THE GAY DEBATE: THE BIBLE AND HOMOSEXUALITY
Nearly 700,000 people have watched his hour and seven minute address. I watched it rather awestruck at his fluent presentation and his precise reasoning. If this doesn't undermine the group he calls "traditionalists" nothing will.
Of course, nothing will.
I notice he was speaking to the Methodist folks as if he were home. Well, that's where to begin. We know, however, that argumentation and debate are all but irrelevant. It is the fact that the traditionalists (religious and political) are losing their oncoming generation that ought to be getting their attention.
Now, as to Matthew's content. He was persuasive. He had targeted his audience and he never deviated. No faults there.
But he would have missed a Lutheran audience, at least if they were theologically alert and informed, as Matthew assumed his Methodist audience to be. His central argument was that all 6 of the anti-gay passages should not be interpreted in the traditional way, and in fact need to be re-interpreted to bring them and those fascinated with those verses back to the central Gospel issue of love. For a Lutheran, however, the demonstration of God's love is not Jesus' teaching but Christ's action. It is salvation that is central. It is what Christ did that eradicates the old law and replaces it with the principle of grace and response to grace. That is the main theme in Romans, which is the key passage of all of them dealing with anything resembling gay relationships and orientation. Matthew alluded to that as the reason for disregarding the Leviticus passages as Christians, but then he did not apply that same reason to the Romans passage. A Lutheran would have noticed.
More serious, I believe, is the maintenance of the Christian cultural assumption about marriage. The thing that Matthew was most passionate about is how the traditional Christian prescription for gay people is loneliness and celibacy, whereas there is warrant to say that God's will is that everyone be in a committed, loving relationship as heterosexual people can be.
I have had this debate with gay Christian theologically alert brothers before. Their entire goal, as Matthew's seems to be, is to secure the rights to the ideal Christian form of marriage for gay couples. They tell me to "shut up" (in just so many words) when I attempt to contend that it is the whole concept of marriage that is flawed.
Essentially, embedded within the Christian marriage ideal is the European imperialist right to define marriage "our way". The traditionalists will define marriage as between one man and one woman (or one man and one woman at a time). The neo-traditionalists will still insist that marriage is between one person and another person. Monogamy reigns.
Maybe it is ruinous to political progress to try to push too far too fast. But the bottom line is that monogamy is not an essential biblical concept. Polygamy (in various forms) is no more an outdated primitive or savage idea than gay sex is. They have been suppressed without biblical warrant. They are cultural issues. It took European imperialism to push monogamy into almost all non-European areas of the world. The world was vastly more diverse than the European Christians could tolerate with their project to civilize the world in their own image.
This line of reasoning is not as bizarre as it might seem to be, and it is not primarily about Christian imperialism, much less a defense of polygamy.
I contend that Christianity will continue to be abandoned by the coming generation in the West and not long after by subsequent generations in other parts of the world until the Church relinquishes the role of being the world's social magistrate. Postmodernism is not just a name for a philosophical and artistic era, it is a description of independent thinking in areas of social and cultural values and expression. Howsoever the Church continues to claim the right to define society and culture, in those ways the Church will be increasingly ignored. The Church has lost the authority to define marriage, but refuses to admit it. Marriage in America is now defined by individual couples, and not by the Church. In that and in many other issues, the Church is losing its oncoming generation and losing its ability to expound, influence and inspire.
An observant student from the USA in the Go-Ed program pointed to the bottom step leading up to a Buddhist temple building and asked, “Why is that snake coming out of the mouth of the other one?” It’s taken some study, but I hope he’s online because I have the answer now.
The multi-headed serpent was a naag. A naag is a mythological creature sometimes characterized as a cobra, sometimes a many-headed reptile, but usually as a dragon with one or multiple heads. The naag in Buddhist lore is venerated for several reasons, the chief one being that it was the naag who protected the Buddha when he was being attacked by demonic forces. Seeing the advancing army of evil, Mother Toranee (read: Mother Nature) wrung out her freshly shampooed hair causing a flood that delayed the demons long enough for the forces of good to counter-attack. The naag lifted the entranced Buddha upon her coils above the flood and covered him against the deluge with her hood (or her many heads).
Much less well-known is the identity of the other reptile out of whose mouth the venerable naag is emerging along the stairways of almost every temple in Thailand. That is Sheshanaag, also known as Anata Shesha or Makara. Sheshanaag was the couch or raft upon which Vishnu reclined on the cosmic sea of milk before the formation of the earth. Sometimes Makara is portrayed as a cobra, a crocodile, a fish with an elephant head, or a lizard-like dragon. In some temples, such as in the one pictured above of the long stairway leading up to Wat Doi Sutape here in Chiang Mai, there is a crocodile under the naag in addition to the dragon disgorging the naag. That underscores my contention that Sheshanaag and Makara are one and the same.
These sorts of investigations are intellectually stimulating, but what does it mean that Sheshanaag produced the naag? The main thing is the clear connection between Hinduism and Buddhism. The symbolism says Hinduism gave birth to Buddhism. Or, if you prefer, Buddhism emerged from Hinduism. This is not denied by anybody, but it seems well to reiterate it anyway. Nor, on the other hand, did this happen in some epic battle as Greek, Egyptian and Babylonian mythologies contend, whereby the previous generation was savagely defeated. The naag is a continuation of Sheshanaag, who can be seen rippling along the crest of the temple roof on the threshold between earth and heaven. In Thai Buddhism, statuary is one of the languages of the lore.
If we read it this way, Buddhism is proclaiming that the truth, the Dharma, is connected to, and to an extent emerges from, prior truth. Truth from truth all the way back to the cosmic sea of milk, or tohu-wa-bohu (Genesis 1:1-2), or whatever you prefer. I’ll go with big bang and a billion-degree sea of fire.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.