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Letter to Metropolitan
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  Most Rev. Dr. Joseph Mar Thoma Metropolitan Most Rev. Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar  
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Indelible market
  By Chris Armstrong  
  John Wigger explains how Francis Asbury left his fingerprints all over American Christianity.
Interview by Chris Armstrong

FLASH back to 1776 and consider the celebrities of the time: George Washington, and maybe Thomas Jefferson. Believe it or not, the horseback-riding preacher and leader of early Methodism, Francis Asbury, would have been more recognizable face to face than these leaders or anyone else of his generation. Chris Armstrong, associate professor of church history at Bethel Seminary, interviewed historian John Wigger about the imprint Asbury left on America, which Wigger details in American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (Oxford University Press).

What did Francis Asbury do that American Christians today should appreciate?

Asbury led American Methodism through a period of tremendous growth. From 1771 until his death in 1816, he traveled more extensively across the American landscape than probably any other American of his day: over 130,000 miles on horseback. He preached more than 10,000 sermons and probably ordained 2,000 to 3,000 preachers. In 1771, there were only a few hundred Methodists in America. By 1816, there were more than 200,000, and Methodism had become the largest and most dynamic religious movement in America—a status it would hold through the Civil War.

Asbury's influence also went well beyond denominational borders. Many more Americans attended Methodist meetings than actually joined the church, especially early on. Methodism's theology, worship style, and system of discipline worked their ways deep into the fabric of American life, influencing nearly all other mass religious movements. So Asbury's fingerprints have ended up on the holiness and Pentecostal movements and on the culture of evangelicalism as a whole.

You use the contentious s-word in describing Asbury. What was really saintly about him?

Asbury didn't think of himself as particularly holy. But other people did. Living the same life as Methodism's circuit riders, he spent most days in other people's homes during his 45 years in America. He lived under intense scrutiny, and in the end people had very little bad to say about him.

He prayed frequently, getting up at 4 or 5 A.M. many mornings for private prayer, and then joining with his host families for evening prayer. He lived in voluntary poverty, dressing cheaply, even buying the cheapest saddles despite the huge amount of time he spent on horseback. He gave away almost all the money that ever came his way. He relentlessly pushed himself in the service of the gospel, even in his later years when he suffered progressively worsening congestive heart failure, which made his feet so sore he sometimes had to be carried from his horse to the pulpit.

No one believed that Asbury was perfect, and even his greatest supporters admitted that he made mistakes in running the church. Though not an autocrat, he did guard his episcopal authority, which opened him up to criticism. He was so well loved that we know of at least 1,000 children named after him. But he continued to be afraid of rejection. So when he was in settings he found intimidating, he could seem aloof, even harsh.

What made Asbury such an effective leader?

When we think of great religious leaders, we usually have in mind intellectuals, charismatic communicators, autocrats. But Asbury was none of these. He was the son of an English gardener, and had only a few years of common schooling to his credit. He was a terrible public speaker. And he was uncomfortable in the halls of denominational power.

Asbury's leadership was built on his piety and his ability to connect with people one on one. He was also a brilliant administrator. His nationwide network of thousands of leaders and the structure of "conferences" churning out statistical reports anticipated modern managerial structures (Courtesy: Christianity Today)
 
   
Muslim followers of Jesus?
  By Joseph Cumming  
  Believers from Muslim backgrounds are trying to forge new identities in Islamic cultures. The debate over their options has grown furious.

Can one be a Muslim and a follower of Jesus? Tens of thousands believe so, and in this third installment of the Global Conversation, Yale University scholar Joseph Cumming describes the furious debate their example has fueled. The question of following Jesus while remaining within a practicing community of Muslims has great importance in regions where the two faiths contend. It also serves as an important example of a wider challenge. As the gospel moves across cultural boundaries, those who respond will answer its call in different ways. As missions historian Andrew Walls has written, "Conversion to Christ does not produce a bland universal citizenship; it produces distinctive discipleships, as diverse and variegated as human life itself." The gospel must be contextualized, but how far can contextualization go without violating the gospel? And who sets the boundaries?

In 1979 my best friend decided he saw himself not as a "Christian," but as a "Messianic Jew." John had come from a secular Jewish background and was actually a practicing Hindu before he met Jesus. Then, for three years he was active in a Bible-believing Christian church. But now John felt called to reconnect with his Jewish roots, join a Messianic synagogue, keep a kosher home, and raise his children Jewish. He saw no contradiction between following Jesus as Messiah and identifying -- ethnically and religiously -- as Jewish.

Like most Christians in the 1970s, I initially reacted with skepticism, quoting biblical texts I thought rejected kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws) as contrary to our liberty in Christ. I gradually learned that those texts could be understood differently, and came to respect the legitimacy of the fledgling Messianic movement -- but not before I hurt my friend by my hostility to his effort to explore his identity as a Jewish follower of Jesus.

The wider Jewish community also reacted negatively. Most saw Messianic Judaism as simply repackaging centuries-old efforts to convert Jews, destroying Jewish identity. To them Messianic Jews were not Jews at all. Recently, however, some Jewish scholars have cautiously suggested that Messianic Jews who faithfully observe Torah and halakha, who participate constructively in the life of the Jewish community, and who pass on Jewish traditions to their children are in error but must be recognized as fellow Jews.

In the 1980s a similar movement began among Muslims who had come to faith in Christ. These were Muslims who trusted Jesus as Lord and divine Savior, believed Jesus died for their sins and rose again, and insisted this did not make them ex-Muslims or converts to the Christian religion. They wanted to remain within their Muslim community, honoring Jesus in that context.

Reactions from both Muslim and Christian communities have varied widely. On the Muslim side, some have persecuted these believers, while others cautiously accept them within their communities. On the Christian side, defenders see them as "Messianic Muslims" whom we should accept -- just as we accept Messianic Jews -- as authentic disciples of Jesus. Critics argue that Islam and Judaism are different, that Muslim identity cannot be reconciled with biblical faith.

When Nabil had a life-transforming encounter with Jesus, he remained within the Muslim community, participating in Muslim prayers. As his love for Jesus became known to family and friends, some followed his example, but others actually attempted to murder him. After being imprisoned for his beliefs, he decided he no longer considered himself a Muslim. He saw Islam as the system responsible for persecuting him. Today Nabil considers himself a Christian. But some who followed him in faith still see themselves as Muslims.

Ibrahim was a well-respected scholar of the Qur'an, a hafiz. When he decided to follow Jesus, he closely examined the Qur'anic verses commonly understood as denying the Trinity, denying Jesus' divine Sonship, denying Jesus' atoning death, and denying the textual integrity of the Bible. He concluded that each of these verses was open to alternate interpretations, and that he could therefore follow Jesus as a Muslim. Soon members of his family and community came to share his faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Ibrahim was also imprisoned for his faith, but unlike Nabil, Ibrahim still wanted to follow Jesus as a Muslim. Nonetheless, some whom he led to Jesus no longer see themselves as Muslims. Ibrahim and Nabil are friends and respect each other as brothers, though they disagree about their identity.

As Christians from other cultures meet believers like Nabil and Ibrahim, they have mixed reactions. Phil Parshall and John Travis have, between them, worked for more than 60 years among Muslims, and they respectfully disagree with each other. They have published a series of articles in missiological journals, setting forth points on which they differ. Numerous articles by others have followed.

In technical terms this is known as the "C4-C5 debate," drawing on a scale designed by Travis to describe various Christ-centered communities (Cs) with which Muslim-background believers in Jesus (MBBs) identify, and the ways they understand their identity:

C1: MBBs in churches radically different from their own culture, where worship is in a language other than their mother tongue.

C2: Same as C1, but worship is in the MBBs' mother tongue.

C3: MBBs in culturally indigenous Christian churches that avoid cultural forms seen as "Islamic."

C4: MBBs in culturally indigenous congregations that retain biblically permissible Islamic forms (e.g., prostrating in prayer), investing these with biblical meaning. They may call themselves something other than Christians (e.g., "followers of Jesus"), but do not see themselves as Muslims.

C5: Muslims who follow Jesus as Lord and Savior in fellowships of like-minded believers within the Muslim community, continuing to identify culturally and officially as Muslims.

C6: Secret/underground believers.

The most vigorous disagreement is between C4 and C5 advocates. To help readers understand the issues, I'll set forth concerns expressed by C1-C4 advocates troubled by C5. Then I'll summarize responses from C5 defenders. These concerns and responses are in quotation marks to make clear that these are others' views, not necessarily my own. Then I'll add my own comments.

C4 concern: "Scripture (e.g., 1 Kings 18:21; 2 Kings 17:27Ð41) condemns syncretism. Trying to be both Muslims and followers of Jesus is syncretistic."

C5 response: "This is not the syncretism Scripture condemns. C5 believers live under the authority of the Bible (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:19Ð23; Acts 16:1Ð3; 21:20Ð40), reinterpreting or rejecting anything contrary to Scripture."

Comment: Both sides of this discussion have done serious exegetical work in Scripture, which they believe supports their view. It is impossible to do justice to either side in this article. Readers would do well to examine articles in Evangelical Missions Quarterly and the International Journal of Frontier Missions, where the biblical issues are set forth.

C4 concern: "Islam and Judaism are different: one cannot compare 'Messianic Islam' with Messianic Judaism. The Hebrew Scriptures are recognized by Christians as inspired; the Qur'an is not. The mosque is pregnant with Islamic theology that explicitly denies biblical truths."

C5 response: "Islam and Judaism are different, but both are monotheistic. Islam recognizes the Torah and New Testament as Scripture alongside the Qur'an. Rabbinic Judaism sees as authoritative not just the Hebrew Scriptures (Tanakh) but also the Talmud, which, like the Qur'an, contains a mixture of material compatible and incompatible with the New Testament. Traditional synagogue liturgy also seems to repudiate New Testament teachings, but both liturgies can be reinterpreted, and attendance at prayers does not necessarily mean affirming every word of liturgy."

Comment: The term "Messianic Islam" is unhelpful. For Jews the messiahship of Jesus is a watershed issue, whereas Muslims recognize Jesus as Messiah but raise other objections to Christian beliefs about Jesus. Most Muslims believe the text of the Bible has been corrupted, but some Muslim scholars disagree. C5 believers affirm the Bible as God's Word. Sacred texts must be examined closely, considering whether proposed interpretations are legitimate and honest.

C4 concern: "The C5 approach is deceitful. How would you feel if Muslims showed up at your church claiming to be Christians, then tried to convert your people to Islam?"

C5 response: "It is not deceitful if C5 believers are transparent with the Muslim community about who they are and what they believe. C5 believers honestly see themselves as Muslims, not as Christians pretending to be Muslims. They are not seeking to convert Muslims to Christianity"

Comment: Remember, Travis’s scale describes how believers born and raised as Muslims understand their identity, not how people raised as Christians describe themselves.

C4 concern: "The Muslim community won't tolerate such aberrant Muslims within their ranks."

C5 response: "It's too soon to be certain of that." Comment: The Muslim community can speak for itself. When I have discussed this with Muslim leaders, their primary concern has been whether these people continue to practice the moral and ritual requirements of the Muslim community with which they identify (i.e. what madhhab they follow). They also assert that all Muslims follow Jesus as Prophet and Messiah, just not in the terms Christians draw from the New Testament.

C4 concern: "To call oneself Muslim is to affirm Muhammad as a true prophet of God. That is incompatible with the Bible."

C5 response: "Actually, 'Muslim' means different things to different Muslims. C5 believers have a variety of views about Muhammad, including: (1) one can be culturally Muslim without any theological affirmation about Muhammad; (2) Muhammad was a prophet, but not always infallible (cf. 1 Thess. 5:20–21 and Caiaphas in John 11:51); (3) Muhammad was a prophet for Arabs, but not for other peoples; (4) Muhammad was a true prophet whose words have been misinterpreted; (5) this question is unimportant either way."

Comment: For the overwhelming majority of Muslims, the prophethood of Muhammad is non-negotiably essential to Muslim identity. But the word Muslim (literal Arabic meaning: "submitted to God") does mean different things in different contexts. The Qur'an calls Jesus' first disciples "Muslims" (Q3:52). In some societies, "Muslim" and "Christian" refer more to ethnicity than to religious beliefs.

C4 concern: "C5 MBBs retain Muslim identity to avoid persecution for the cross of Christ."

C5 response: "That's an unfair judging of motives.
The issue is religio-cultural identity, not the cross of Christ, which C5 believers affirm."

Comment: If C5 believers are trying to avoid persecution, it isn't working. Many have been terribly persecuted, suffering imprisonment and worse for their convictions.

C4 concern: "What about the church? Do C5 believers see themselves as part of Christ's body?"

C5 response: "C5 believers form Christ-centered fellowships in which they study the Bible, pray, and celebrate baptism and the Lord's Supper. These are ekklesia in the New Testament sense, though they may look very different from what Christians usually call 'churches.' "

Comment: Studying and obeying Scripture helps local fellowships be holy and apostolic. But Scripture also calls fellowships to recognize the unity and universality of the worldwide body of Christ. Some C5 fellowships, and some workers partnering with them, have very negative views of or broken relationships with non-MBB churches. Other C5 fellowships have healthy attitudes toward the wider church.

C4 concern: "I have heard some C5 groups have sloppy Christology. This alarms me."

C5 response: "Some C5 believers do have fuzzy Christology, but so do many ordinary Christians everywhere. What matters is C5 believers' direction of movement: toward Jesus Christ. They pray in his name, worship him as Lord, and experience his supernatural working in their lives. Their Christology keeps moving higher."

Comment: That seems reasonable for new believers. But as this movement grows and its leaders mature, one hopes those leaders will understand sound Christology and articulate it in terms intelligible to their flock. Sensitivity to direction of movement is right, but only with clarity about the ultimate destination of that movement -- toward Jesus Christ, not only as Savior and sin-bearing Lamb, but also as eternal, uncreated Logos, God manifest in human flesh.

C5 believers like Ibrahim challenge assumptions about what it means to be Muslim or Christian. We all have more than one identity and community. For example, most American Christians assume one can be both a patriotic American (loyal to that community) and a faithful Christian, though they may disagree with some things their fellow-Americans do or teach. Believers like Ibrahim seek to be both authentic Muslims (loyal to the community of their birth) and faithful disciples of Jesus, critically evaluating what their fellow-Muslims do and teach in light of the teachings of Christ -- sometimes accepting, sometimes reinterpreting, sometimes disagreeing. Do such disagreements require American believers to repudiate American identity and community, or require C5 believers to repudiate the Muslim community and their Muslim identity? How can believers best be "critically loyal" to the community of their birth and to their family heritage, respectfully critiquing what is unscriptural, while upholding God's Commandment to 'Honor your father and mother"?
Ever since the

Wesleyan revival and the Great Awakening of the 18th century, evangelicals have insisted that what matters most to God is not one's identity as "being a Christian," but rather whether one has a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. David Brainerd was expelled from Yale University in 1742 for remarking that a certain faculty member (a loyal "Christian") had "no more grace than this chair," because he did not have a personal relationship with Jesus.

Does it follow that it is totally unimportant for believers to call themselves Christians? With Messianic Jews, the evangelical community mostly accepts that the label "Christian" is not essential. Is the same true for C5 believers, or is Islam too radically different? If the latter, then what specific differences between the Jewish and Muslim communities prompt us to accept one and reject the other?

Let me close with a plea from my heart. In recent months this debate has grown acrimonious. Muslim-background believers like Nabil and Ibrahim are mostly unable to participate directly in the discussion, because doing so would expose them to further persecution. Instead, Christians from non-Muslim backgrounds are holding a debate without them, anathematizing first Ibrahim, then Nabil. But Nabil and Ibrahim themselves respect each other as brothers and are able to disagree in love.

As for me, remembering how I hurt my Jewish friend in 1979, I want to be very careful not to hurtfully reject brothers who have already suffered rejection and prison for Jesus. Jesus said that "whoever comes to me I will never drive away."

As Nabil and Ibrahim understand their position in the universal body of Christ, they must listen to counsel from others around the world. But if we understand our position in that same body, then we must respect their fundamental human right to sort out -- under the authority of Scripture -- how they express their identity as followers of Christ. It is they whose lives are quite literally on the line. If they can respect each other after suffering prison for Jesus, then surely we can treat them both with respect.
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Joseph Cumming and his family lived fifteen years in a Muslim community in North Africa. He currently directs the Reconciliation Program at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, Yale University, and meets regularly with senior Muslim leaders around the world. More info at www.josephcumming.com.
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The Global Conversation addresses important issues related to world evangelization in preparation for the Lausanne Movement's Cape Town 2010 conference. Join the conversation by reading responses from three key leaders at ChristianityToday.com/go/conversation and by posting your own comments.
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today.
 
   
Success and failure
  By Balvinder Singh  
  "AGAINST 340 vacancies for the job of licensed porters under the Ambala Division of Railways, 929 applications have been received. Of the 929 applicants, many are law and management graduates, some even postgraduates, even though the minimum qualification is a mere Class VIII," read a recent news report (Indian Express, Nov 6, 2009).

The most disturbing feature of this article appears to be the sad fact that these disgruntled job seekers, skilled in their respective fields, would probably not, if given a chance, be able to give their best to these lowly porters' jobs meant for unskilled workers.

However, my concern here is entirely different. Is success in academic/professional examinations a guarantee for one's success in life? Probably not. For, failures in one's life come in different and invariably unfamiliar disguises.

And the moot question that I intend to raise here is this: Does our education system prepare us to combat failures in life? Again, a big no!

In fact, our education system has led many youngsters to an altogether different path that goes far away from their goals.

Consider the following examples to have a closer look at the sullen situation.

A popular TV commercial promoting a particular brand of toothpaste goes like this: On being asked by his schoolmate for the reason of his 'sadness', a glum-looking child replies remorsefully, 'Main fail ho gaya" (I failed). After a few moments, he is shown jumping with joy when he is told that it is not he, but his tooth-paste that had failed!

The other day, the first thing that my five-year-old grandson Raunaq beamingly told his mother on returning from school was that his friend Mallai had failed in that day's math-test. Not so strangely, the account of his getting full marks and getting applause from his classmates got a second place of priority.

This clearly demonstrates two disturbing facets of our youngsters' general thinking today. One, failure is an extremely awful thing; two, the failure of others is worth celebrating.

And this, perhaps, is the result of what we teach our children today, perhaps unknowingly, both as parents and teachers.

The amount of malpractices that are being adopted with clinical ingenuity during examinations these days is too well known. It is, perhaps, the result of such a teaching that does not prepare one to accept failures gracefully.

This social malice has gone so deep into our youngsters' psyche that today even school games, leave aside cricket or hockey matches between India and Pakistan, are played like wars! Since no one likes to lose, both the players and their patrons resort to every possible wrong methodology.

Is failure that dreadful a thing that today some school examinations at the lower level have totally been abolished? It might be a well-intended move, but this method of avoiding examinations to escape failures is unjustified. This is just a postponement of failures. For, ultimately one has to face examinations at a later stage. And by then, a child would not have learnt to face failures in good sportsman spirit. No wonder there is a disturbing rise in the number of unfortunate suicides and depression bouts during every examination season.

Before going ahead with such a hasty move of abolishing examinations at the lower school level, perhaps, no one looked at its wider and negative ramifications. For, life is, as they say, not a bed of roses. It is full of failures of various kinds and magnitudes.

By not allowing our youngsters, through examination-oriented healthy competitions, to face and accept insignificant educational failures, we curtail their learning capacities to cope up with bigger challenges and failures in life.

It is well said that 'the only real failure in life is one not learned from'. Society tells us that to fail is the most terrible thing in the world. But it is not. Failure is part of what makes us human.

In defense of failures, Sir Winston Churchill very rightly remarked: "Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm."

The great English poet John Keats too was not wrong either when he said, "Don't be discouraged by a failure. It can be a positive experience. Failure is, in a sense, the highway to success, inasmuch as every discovery of what is false leads us to seek earnestly after what is true, and every fresh experience points out some form of error, which we shall afterwards carefully avoid."

Those, perhaps, were real good old days. This may sound cynical, but seems to be true.

While preparing for our matriculation examination, which in those days used to be conducted by Panjab University, we, a bunch of mediocre students were discussing its unfamiliar examination fears.

All of us, belonging to a remotely situated Khalsa School in a backward town of Punjab, were unanimous on one count; "We fear only two subjects, Mathematics and English!"

"But, I fear only one -- Mathematics," announced Maharaja, rather loudly. We all were taken aback. For, Maharaja, (whose real name was Ranjit, but got this sobriquet because he, like Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was also blind in one eye), though physically stronger than all of us and a sharp 'Gulel'-shooter, was considered academically weakest of the whole bunch.

However, his concluding remark put everything in order and cleared the confusion; "I fear failing in mathematics alone, because failure in English is 'pacca' (dead sure), so why fear it!"

Though Maharaja failed in his matriculation examination that he never could clear, he passed life's examination courageously. For, he settled well in life by starting out as a truck driver, (I don't know how he managed a driving licence despite being one eyed), and graduated to own a few trucks of his own!
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The writer was Principal of Arts College, Chandigarh.
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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