Mother’s Day, Termites, Advertising and Kikuyu Men. That Sort of Thing.

Mother’s Day is fast approaching, and that means we Americans are all busy spending money, just like we do with every holiday.  The latest estimates show Americans will spend $20 billion on Mother’s Day items this year, surpassing both Halloween and Easter.

I am sure you sense a critique coming, but before I launch into it, I have to confess that I am not a very good gift-giver.  What is worse, I haven’t always been as appreciative to my mother or my wife as I should be (on Mother’s Day or at other times).  So the questions about consumerism and holidays that I raise do not stem from my own virtue and righteousness.  Let me draw from some others.

First, it is worth noting that we Americans tend to turn every holiday into a spending spree.  I once met a fellow scholar from England who was visiting the United States over Memorial Day weekend.  He found the idea of “Memorial Day sales” to be very curious.  In Britain, Memorial Day (or Remembrance Day, as the Brits call it) is a somber event where one is supposed to honor and remember the many who have died in war.  It is serious business.  Why, my British acquaintance more or less asked, do we Americans think we should use the day to sell mattresses at half price?  Good question.

That raises the question of what consumerism does to the meaning, habits and practices of holidays.  Admittedly, as far as our holidays go, there is probably less self-indulgence in Mother’s Day as others.  It is more other-oriented than many.  Still, the economics of the thing has a way of shaping the meaning of the holiday.  Critics have argued that Mother’s Day is primarily an opportunity for florists, greeting card companies, restaurants and other companies to make a buck.

But has anyone ever been as ticked off about Mother’s Day as Anna Jarvis?  Angered by the “greedy” businessmen who dominated the holiday, she called them “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites.”

I like the “other termites” part.  It’s a nice touch.

Why was Anna Jarvis so mad?  Well, she pretty much invented the holiday.  Then she watched American consumerism kick in and take it places she did not want it to go.

Clever Title, don't you think?

Clever Title, don’t you think?

The story of the relationship between consumerism and Mother’s Day (and Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day) is told by Leigh Erich Schmidt in Consumer Rites:  The Buying and Selling of American Holidays.  (I received this book as a gift at Christmas one year — the ironies there make me happy).

Jarvis created the Mother’s Day International Association and convinced politicians, newspaper editors and church leaders to recognize the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day in 1908.  A dedicated evangelical who grew up as a Methodist in West Virginia, Jarvis intended the day to be grounded in the church, where mothers would be celebrated not only for their domestic duties, (which, of course, is primarily how middle-class Americans thought of mothers in 1908) but to encourage others in their piety and roles in developing spiritual qualities in children.

And then, unintended consequences.  The very success of her movement ended up bringing her frustrations. Florists latched onto the day very quickly.  Jarvis had suggested that people wear white carnations to honor their mothers, a simple recommendation that sent prices for the flower skyrocketing each May.  By 1910, the floral industry began suggesting to customers that flowers also should be given to mothers as gifts.  And then, well, what the heck, why not decorate churches, homes, Sunday schools and cemeteries with flowers on the holiday as well?  Floral trade organizations encouraged aggressive marketing campaigns, while simultaneously advising their businesses that “the commercial aspect is at all times to be kept concealed.”  Americans, of course, are suckers for good advertising.  The catchy phrase, “Say it With Flowers” convinced many that spending money was the best way to express one’s affection for one’s mother.   By 1920, the holiday had been so deeply entrenched in the world of consumerism, that Jarvis despaired that the meaning of the holiday had been hijacked by commercial interests.  Hence the “other termites” thing.

Say what with flowers?  Do we know?

Say what with flowers? Do we know?

I can understand Jarvis’ frustration.  You may have noticed that consumerism bothers me somewhat.  That is fallout from living in Kenya for six years and coming back to the United States with new eyes.  Ever since then, I’ve been trying to figure out the implications of this system that envelops us.  I have been a bit suspicious that Mother’s Day is often more of a Hallmark-driven holiday than a grounded appreciation for important people in our lives.

You can imagine, then, that I was a bit nonplussed a few years ago when a Kenyan friend of mine told me about an African pastor he knew who had introduced Mother’s Day into his church.  This pastor had spent a number of years at a seminary in the United States and returned to Kenya with this idea.  Inwardly, I groaned a little, worried that it would end up simply embedding consumerism and materialism into this African church.

I should have known, though, that institutions that get transplanted in the soil of a different culture don’t grow into the same kind of plant.  Here is the situation:  traditional Kikuyu men were socialized into ordering around their wives (and other women) to do tasks. Like many traditional cultures, the Kikuyu have a fair amount of patriarchy embedded in the way they did things. One expression of this patriarchy was that husbands would not show any appreciation to their wives.  And that has all sorts of implications for how men and women related to one another, as well as how gender relations were structured.

We caught glimpses of this when we lived in Kenya.  There were times in public places when African men — strangers — would approach my wife and tell her how she should be parenting our young children.   And then expected her to act on those instructions.  Right there.

It takes a village to raise a child and it also takes a village to get women to act as the men want them to.

But the Kikuyu pastor, as my friend explained, introduced Mother’s Day as a way to instruct the men in his congregation that they were not only to do something nice for their wives, they were to recognize that women were important and valuable.  They were to tell their wives this and thank them for something they did.   These actions were quite different for the Kikuyu men in that church.  This pastor had not simply picked up the idea that Mother’s Day was about men buying flowers for mothers and wives.  He saw that the Christian faith had implications for gender relations — at the very least, men should not lord themselves over women.  There are far more implications for gender in the Christian faith than that, of course, but I find this a significant development for this church.

Whatever her flaws, (and she had them), Anna Jarvis would have been pleased, I think, with this Kenyan pastor.  She understood that the way we related to one another mattered.  Jarvis said that “any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter, than any fancy greeting card,” and she is probably right.  A card can prevent people from actually thinking about and articulating what is important in a relationship.

I’m not anti-gift (nor was Jarvis).  For many mothers, receiving gifts may be a meaningful way to accept the love of others.  But there are other ideas out there besides those we get in our advertisements.  Maybe we should think more deeply about whether gifts are the best way to express gratitude and honor those we love.  A phone call, a note, time together, making meals…I don’t know.  It probably depends.  I’m not very good at this, which means I need to think about it more.

I’d be interested to hear about any non-consumeristic ways you have of handling Mother’s Day.

Some Things Very Few People Know

A quiz.

What do the following people have in common?

Martin Luther King, Jr., Sun Yat-Sen, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, W.E.B. DuBois , Jomo Kenyatta, Rosa Parks.

You could say they are all important people of color.  You could say that they all played an important role in forging nations in the 20th century.

And if you have been following my blog lately and are good at guessing at quizzes, you are also calculating that I have some sort of missionary angle here.

Yep.  But what is it?

The answer:  each one of these individuals received at least some of their education from an institution founded by missionaries.  And those missionaries would have been the evangelistic types who wanted to convert people to Christianity.

This is not widely known.

In fact, the missionary education connection to all of these people may not be known by anybody but you and me.  (Hey, that’s kind of exciting, isn’t it?).  Two weeks ago I did not put all these people together.  I knew that King, Kenyatta and Mandela had gone to schools founded by missionaries.  But Bob Woodberry’s article got me thinking.  (Come to think of it, Bob probably knows these things, so it’s probably not just you and me.  Sorry.)  I started digging a little into the academic history of notable people of color from the 20th century.  The Nobel Peace Prize list was a good place to start — I found quite a few there and I haven’t even listed here all the Nobel Peace prize winners who attended a school founded by missionaries.  In fact, the list of nine people above is a pretty impressive group of people.  I’d put it up against any list of twentieth-century people of color who were not educated at schools founded by missionaries.

So, it turns out that this guy has more in common with.....

So, it turns out that this guy has more in common with…..

Yet you will find very few scholars who make any missionary connection to any of the people above.  In fact, as I was wondering about these questions the past week, I had to dig quite a bit to find the information about these people.  Go ahead and research Gandhi’s life on the internet like I did (this is not the best way to do solid research, but my budget for this blog is rather limited) and see if anybody mentions that Gandhi went to a university founded by missionaries.  Google “The University of Mumbai” and see how many of the links mentions this.  (The University of Mumbai does not describe itself this way).  A few sites will say that the institution was founded by a guy named John Wilson, but will not mention that Wilson was a missionary.  It will be quite likely, though, that the reference will say the University of Mumbai was founded by the British.  You’ll find the same kind of descriptions if you try to research the educational background of the others on my list.

A few years the conservative pundit and habitual gadfly Dinesh D’Souza wrote a flawed article entitled “Two Cheers for Colonialism.”  D’Souza, who was born in India himself, made the argument that there was a good side to colonialism because the British brought western education to India.

Now, strictly speaking, it is true to say that the British brought western education to India.  But this is sort of like saying the town of Wapakoneta, Ohio brought the American flag to the moon.  Wapakoneta is a very nice little town with some fine people in it, I am sure, but when we explain how we landed on the moon, the birthplace of Neil Armstrong seems somewhat incidental as a causal explanation.

While it is true that the British and French governments established schools in their colonies, they invariably did this fifty to one hundred years after missionaries had already built schools and colleges in these areas.  In fact, the British East India Company opposed missionaries and missionary schools for many years.  Company officials battled missionary supporters in Parliament in 1813 over whether missionaries should be allowed to operate freely in India.  So if we want to be even more precise about D’Souza’s claim, we would have to say that the British both opposed and supported bringing western education to India.  So how much credit should we give them?

....this guy, than just a commitment to nonviolent protest.

….this guy, besides a commitment to nonviolent protest.

In essence, the British government began setting up schools many decades after the missionaries did when they began to see that locals who had been educated by missionaries were useful to their colonial system.

And there is more.  Once the British Parliament implemented the policy pushed by the evangelical lobby in the early 19th century to allow missionaries the freedom to establish schools, print newspapers and exchange ideas freely, they were forced to allow Muslims, Hindus and other non-Christians in their colonies to do the same.  So Gandhi, who never converted to Christianity, of course, had the freedom to campaign for democracy and against British colonialism in large part because missionaries had helped create the conditions to make this possible.

Oh, and Dinesh D’Souza, who has argued that we need to thank the British colonizers for providing India with a western education?  He attended a school in Mumbai that was founded by Catholic missionaries.

Now, Neil Armstrong, on the other hand, attended a public high school in Wapakoneta, Ohio before going on to the University of Southern California.  USC, which is known for its Trojan football team, was not founded by missionaries.  It was founded by evangelical Methodists.

And that is different.





Those Missionaries. There They Go Again, Building Democracies Around the World. Wait a Minute…What?

I think I’m done with my ranting.  I may not be done being snarky.

One of the points I made in my previous post was that Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, social scientists from the 1970s, and Barbara Kingsolver did not really know a lot about missionaries.

But maybe that doesn’t matter.  Maybe they were still correct.  Maybe they picked up their information from others who knew the situation well.  Maybe missionaries really were cultural imperialists who set back causes for freedom and human flourishing.  After all, a lot of really intelligent people of goodwill in the American establishment viewed missionaries as cultural imperialists.  And we certainly can find examples of missionaries behaving badly.

On the other hand, maybe Bob Woodberry is right.

Bob Woodberry says that “areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on the average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”  And, oh yeah, they “heavily influenced the rise and spread of stable democracies around the world.”


That runs smack in the face of 100 years American establishment thinking about missionaries.

But who is this Bob Woodberry guy, anyway?  And what does he know?

Does this guy know what he is talking about?

Does this guy know what he is talking about?

Bob Woodberry is a sociologist who recently published an article in the American Political Science Review (APSR), which is the top academic journal in political science.  Some things to consider here:  you can’t get published in this journal unless you can convince others that your work is top-notch.  The APSR is also a journal that is not inclined to believe Woodberry’s argument.  The editors of the APSR, in fact, were skeptical enough to ask him for more data and studies when he first submitted his study.  He responded with 192 pages of supporting material.  Woodberry has been at this research for fifteen years now and he uses historical analysis and very sophisticated quantitative methodology of social science, including “two-stage least-squares instrumental variable analysis.”

There you are.  The “two-stage least-squares instrumental variable analysis” technique.

I have no idea what that is.

If you are one of those people who are deeply fascinated in both missionaries and sophisticated sociological methodology, you can pick up the May, 2012 copy of the APSR....

If you are one of the millions of people who are deeply fascinated by both missionaries and sophisticated social science methodology, you can pick up the May, 2012 copy of the APSR….

But I know this:  his article in the APSR has won four academic awards.

In other words, he has convinced a lot of skeptics with his research.  There is a fine article about him and his work in the Jan/Feb, 2014 issue of Christianity TodayIt goes into more detail about how he reached his conclusions and some of the things he was up against as he tried to convince others of the validity of his research.  I happen to know Bob and I’ve heard a story or two about scholars who got quite irate when they were confronted with his research.  Other scholars, though, are sitting up and taking his work seriously.

Now, I should point out that these global developments did not happen simply by missionaries going out and preaching democracy.  It is more complicated than that. Usually, missionaries were just trying to figure out how to spread the Gospel.  Sometimes, in their falleness, they acted in undemocratic ways.  Furthermore, many people who did not convert to Christianity still ended up embracing democracy and education and better health practices and more honest government and more robust economic practices.  But according to Woodberry’s findings, the influence of missionaries played a key role in that whole process.

This is very important research.  And it matters, because if Woodberry is correct, there are a lot of scholars (in the United States and around the world) who will need to reconsider the relationship between religion and the formation of democracy.

....or you might just want to read the CT article....

….or you might just want to read the CT article.

Woodberry is not alone in his scholarship on missionaries.  A number of very good scholars in the last couple of decades have started to show that the 20th century establishment view of missionaries is flawed.

Of course, maybe Woodberry is wrong.  After all, you can always believe H.L. Mencken, who did his research on missionaries by reading a few newspapers at his desk in Baltimore in the 1920s.   Or Barbara Kingsolver, who not only read a book by Chinua Achebe but also one by David Livingstone.



Thanksgiving Eels and Other Historical Challenges

A few years ago my parents were on one of those big air-conditioned tour buses that retired Americans sometimes find themselves on.   They were out west somewhere and the tour guide was talking about Native Americans.  The guide retold the story of the first Thanksgiving and concluded by saying that the Pilgrims gave the Indians.  He did not mention God. My father, who as Methodist minister is attuned to things theological and historical (and is descended from Puritans, to boot) approached the tour guide afterward and informed him that the Pilgrims gave thanks to God, not the Indians.  The guide responded by saying, “I know, but mine is a better story.”

Today one can find not just tour guides but educational curriculum that marginalize religion or neglect to even mention God while teaching us about the Pilgrims.  Many Christians are rightfully bothered by this.  I know my first instinct is often to turn to historical accounts for ammunition.  After all, we want the truth to get out.

But we might be careful what we wish for.

McKenzieIf you pick up Robert Tracy McKenzie’s new book, The First Thanksgiving:  What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History (and I urge you to do so), you will find that there are a lot of inaccuracies in both traditional and contemporary accounts of the First Thanksgiving.  For starters, we don’t know for sure whether or not the Pilgrims and Indians actually ate turkey (though it was quite likely they feasted on geese).  Pumpkin pie and yams were definitely not on the menu.  They probably served eels, parsnips and turnips, which means that an authentic Thanksgiving dinner would please nobody in my family except my father, who gets excited about eating strange vegetables odd aquatic creatures.  Moreover, the Pilgrims didn’t wear big buckles on their shoes and they most likely wore bright clothing.

OK, most of us could live with these adjustments (well, maybe not the eels).  But McKenzie pushes the point further, into areas that might bother us more.  For instance, the Pilgrims were not a particularly tolerant lot and had enjoyed religious freedom in Holland before they set sail on the Mayflower, which means we need to readjust conceptions that they came to America for religious freedom.  Squanto, that friendly Indian whose agricultural advice to the Pilgrims probably warded off starvation during that first winter, was not simply a good-hearted humanitarian who exemplified multi-cultural cooperation, but seemed to be using both the Pilgrims and the local Wampanoag Indians for his own ends.  Apparently, neither side trusted him.  And that is just the beginning of our historical misperceptions.

It should be pointed out that McKenzie, a history professor at Wheaton College, loves Thanksgiving and is inspired by the Pilgrims.  Most of the book, in fact, does not concern itself with correcting historical errors.  McKenzie has deeper goals here, deeply Christian goals.  As the subtitle of the book states, he wants us to be better at loving God and learning from history.

That means many things.  I was helpfully reminded that we ought to turn to history for illumination, not ammunition.  McKenzie argues, correctly, that since we are much better at judging others than judging ourselves, authentic education ought to change who we are.  He writes about erroneous conceptions of Thanksgiving to help us consider how we have a tendency to distort the past because we want our heroes to be just like us.  In fact, if we really dug into the historical record, the Pilgrims would seem strange to us in many ways.  That is actually fine, as McKenzie points out, because “if they were just like us, they would have nothing to teach us.”  We prioritize rights, for instance, while the Pilgrims prioritized responsibility.  There is plenty to ponder there.

We learn how stories of the Pilgrims have been created and put to use by Americans down through history.  I did not know, for instance, that the only documentation we have of the first Thanksgiving is a single 115-word paragraph in a letter William Bradford’s assistant sent back to London merchants.  Bradford never even mentioned Thanksgiving in any of his writings, though there is a fake document (containing at least six factual errors) circulating on the internet that purports to be a Thanksgiving Proclamation issued by the governor.  (False information on the internet?  Who knew?)  Curious, I googled “Thanksgiving Proclamation William Bradford” and found that the very first link on the list took me right to the imposter proclamation.   I was entertained by the fake “Olde English” language of the thing, which was signed by “Ye Governor of Ye Colony.”  However, I cringed a little bit to think of all the fifth-grade reports, Christian devotionals and presidential speeches (yep, even our Presidents have fallen for it) that have employed this fake document to inspire us all.

A picture of what the First Thanksgiving really looked like.  Wait a minute -- How did the Sioux Indians from South Dakota get to Massachusetts?  And where are the Wampanoag?

A picture of what the First Thanksgiving really….wait a minute! What are the Sioux Indians from South Dakota doing down at the end of the table? And what did they do with the Wampanoag Indians?

But then, this sort of thing has been going on for a long time, as McKenzie demonstrates.  How about the historical novel from 1889 that described how the first Thanksgiving dinner was an occasion just packed with numerous budding romances – the widower Bradford making eyes at Mary Chilton, for instance?  The novel imaginatively described, in great detail, the dishes and foods that the Pilgrims supposedly ate at the First Thanksgiving, which the 1897 Ladies Home Journal accepted as historical fact.  We’ve been enjoying the historical inaccuracies ever since.

Meanwhile, the “example” of the Pilgrim story has been used to support causes ranging from capitalism, communal living, the melting pot, the war in Vietnam, the regulation of Big Business and, of course, peace in the Middle East.  This is just part of the reason why McKenzie argues we should just drop the term “revisionist” when discussing history.   History has always been “revisionistic” project and has never been written in pure form, as if it could be special revelation, like Scripture.  Furthermore, McKenzie points out that cries of “revisionism” can lead us to mean-spiritedness and self-righteousness, rather than humble self-reflection.

There are a host of other thoughtful points in this book that I can’t even get to.  But if we are concerned with historical truth and want to love God better, we should follow McKenzie’s proposal that we approach the past with a stance of “moral reflection” rather than “moral judgment.”  Moral reflection requires humility by asking us to question ourselves and engage in respectful conversation with others.  Aren’t those some of the qualities that we want Christians to be known for?

This is the kind of history that Christians ought to read.   And since The First Thanksgiving does the sort of things that a Christian liberal arts education seeks to do, I’ve decided I’m going to assign it as a text in my American history class.

Are Evangelicals Effective at Dealing with the Poor?

Feel free to chime in on this one.  We are going to try to understand evangelicals better.

This is kind of a funny project for me, since I identify myself as an evangelical.  I go to church with these folks.  And I study these people.  You’d think I’d have this figured out.

Well, this is what I do know: evangelicals are good at evangelism.

Granted, we have all probably run into a zealous evangelical or two somewhere in our life who awkwardly thrust a tract in our face or fired off personal questions about heaven and hell in the first sentence they ever addressed to us.  One might question the effectiveness of evangelistic efforts that make the Christian faith look as inviting as a colonoscopy.

But this has not been evangelicals’ main methodology.  Through a variety of other ways in the past couple of centuries, such as revivalism, evangelicals have been very effective in bringing others into their branch of Christianity.  Though evangelicals did not exist in any clear way in 1700, they now make up about a third of American society.  The vast majority of African Americans who have embraced Christianity in the last two centuries have come by way of evangelical churches.  During the last few decades, evangelical churches have been growing while mainline Protestant groups in the U.S. have been in decline.  In Africa, Asia and Latin America, the growth has been even more dramatic.  Evangelicals, particularly Pentecostals, have grown remarkably in China, South Korea, sub-Saharan Africa, Guatemala, Brazil and many other places.  Say what you will, evangelism has been very effective in these regions.

But let’s return to the question I’m kind of avoiding:  are evangelicals any good at dealing with the poor?

This is a more complicated question.  Here are a few different responses that I have come across:

A)  No.  Evangelicals mostly see the poor as people to be evangelized.  With a few exceptions, like the Sojourners crowd, white American evangelicals through the twentieth century looked with suspicion on anything that sounded like the “social gospel.”  And they looked with deeper suspicion upon any governmental programs aimed at the poor.   This “evangelism-only” impulse carried over into the missionary movement, so that Latino and African Christians in the last few decades have upbraided American evangelical missionaries for promoting a partial gospel that neglected issues of poverty.

B)   Yes.  Even though many evangelicals distanced themselves from social causes in the mid-twentieth century, there has been an upsurge of concern and activity since the 1970s.  Those Latino and African Christians who chided American evangelicals were evangelicals themselves, after all.  And no less of an evangelical icon than Billy Graham came on board with their theological arguments at the 1974 Lausanne Conference.  Since the 1960s, we have seen the growth of agencies like World Vision, Compassion International and Habitat for Humanity – organizations that were all founded by evangelicals and still receive the bulk of their support from evangelicals.  And evangelicals had always formed the backbone of older organizations directed toward the poor, such as the Salvation Army and rescue missions.

C) Not really.  Evangelicals often have good intentions, but their effectiveness is limited by an individualistic approach to poverty.  Thus evangelicals will send relief supplies to victims of earthquakes or hand out soccer balls on short-term mission trips, but these are temporary efforts that do little to address long-term systemic and structural issues of poverty.  Evangelicals need a theology that can address issues such as political inequities, class structures, economic systems and institutional racism.  Because they think individualistically and their theology is individualistic, evangelicals often don’t understand the role that structures and institutions play in poverty.

D)  Somewhat, but more indirectly than directly.  When evangelicalism, particularly Pentecostalism, spreads among the poor of the world, it instills certain behaviors among converts that have economic benefits.  Converts develop habits of self-discipline and are transformed in ways that order is brought to disorderly lives.  Evangelical Christianity provides hope for the future, which encourages and empowers its adherents to persevere through difficult economic situations.

There are more explanations, but that seems like a good place to start.

What do you think?





Brazil, Brazil, Brazil……..

The pope and I were both in Brazil last week.   I left Rio de Janeiro a few days before he arrived, so we didn’t get the chance to touch base.  Should I try to friend him on Facebook?  I’m just not sure how social etiquette works in this new digital age.

We both seem to have developed an interest in Brazil, though.  Brazil is interesting for a lot of reasons:  soccer, its rising economic power, the 2016 Olympics, piranhas, massive street protests, cool music about beautiful people on beaches, Mardi Gras, flip-flops.  Those sorts of things.

The pope attracted huge crowds in Rio de Janeiro…..

The pope and I, however, are interested in Brazil for other reasons.  You know why the pope was there.  I was in Rio, Brasilia and the Amazon with two dozen American and Brazilian evangelical scholars under a program sponsored by the Council for Christian College and Universities and the Nagel Institute.  Our group was studying the role of evangelicalism in Brazil.  This seems to be a topic on the pope’s radar as well.   If you have been following the news of the pope’s visit, you will know that the Catholicism in Brazil has been losing large numbers of followers in the last few decades to evangelicals, particularly Pentecostals.  Protestants made up 2.6% of the population in 1940.  They are now up to 21%.  This makes Brazil both the world’s largest Catholic country and the world’s largest Pentecostal country.  This is a very interesting situation.

….our group….not so much.

(For those of you who wish the United States were number one in these sorts of things, you might take comfort in the fact that the U.S. leads the world in Methodists, Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, Baptists, Jews, Churches of Christ, Scientologists, Amish, Nazarenes, and Unarians — who believe that we can communicate with extra-terrestrials by using fourth dimensional physics.  This is also a very interesting situation.  But that’s a topic for a different blog.)

Why, though, has evangelicalism been growing so much in Brazil, particularly among the poor?  A little historical background:

In 1968, in the wake of Vatican II, Catholic bishops from Latin America met in Medellin, Colombia to reexamine the church’s relationship to Latin American society.  They declared that the mission of the Catholic Church was to enact “a preferential option for the poor.”  A number of movements sprung from this action, including the development of liberation theology and the formation of something called Base Ecclesial Communities, which sought to address economic inequities and mobilize the poor for social reform movements.  And indeed, the pope’s message in Rio on Sunday sounded these themes as well.

This is a Christian program that ought to gain traction in Brazil.  For centuries, small groups of elites have controlled political power, owned almost all of the land, directed the economy toward their interests and dictated social norms in society.  Most ordinary people have had little opportunity for advancement and social mobility.  As a result, some of the greatest economic, political and social inequities in the world can be found in Latin America, including Brazil.

But here is where things get a bit puzzling.  As one scholar has noted, the Catholic Church implemented a “preferential option for the poor,” but the poor expressed a preferential option for Pentecostalism.  Why?

There have been many explanations for this, but I haven’t found any of them fully convincing.  In reporting on the pope this week, NPR explained that Pentecostals are much better at advertising and marketing their product.  OK, this may help attract people to church, it doesn’t explain why they stay.

Some people argue that Pentecostal churches preach a prosperity gospel message, promising the poor that God will bless them with wealth if they just commit themselves to the faith.   But this message is not preached by many Pentecostals, and this theology seems to be most prominent among the middle class or those that are already on their way up the social ladder.

Some have pointed out that Pentecostalism is very democratized in its structure, vaulting poor and uneducated members into positions of leadership and influence.  This is true, but Pentecostalism also produces hierarchical churches where charismatic leaders hold authoritarian sway over their congregations.

And why has Pentecostalism succeeded so well in Brazil, Guatemala and Chile, but it has had very little success in Colombia, Bolivia and Venezuela?

There are other explanations for these things, which require book-length studies to explain.  It’s complicated.  And there are still a lot of questions for which we don’t have a complete and satisfying answers.

But given the size of Brazil, religiously, politically and economically, it is bound to exercise increasing influence in the Americas in the decades to come.

So pay attention.

Short-term Missions, Learning, and an American Evangelical Weakness

I have a quiz for you.

It’s the same quiz that I gave to my students toward the end of our trip in Kenya.

I told them that I had observed another group of evangelical Americans in a short-term mission situation where they were speaking to very poor people, most of whom did not have jobs and some of whom were homeless.  I told them about a mini-sermon one of the Americans had given and asked them what made this sermon less effective than it could have been.  Here is how it went:  one of the Americans got up with an old bicycle.  He explained that when you get on a bike, you choose where you go.  You decide what path to take.  You decide if you are going to go to work, or to school, or to a friend’s house.  And that is how it is in life, he explained.  We make choices about how we are going to live.  We decide what job we are going to take and what we are going to do with our life….

At this point, several of my students groaned and several others rolled their eyes.

They passed the quiz.  How did you do?

My students groaned because (as they explained to me) the poor women and homeless street boys in places like Maai Mahiu simply don’t have the choices that Americans have.  They can’t choose what job to take, for instance, because in a poor town in a nation with about 40% unemployment and another 30% underemployment, jobs are desperately hard to find.  Yes, poor Kenyans do have choices – moral and spiritual choices, especially — but their choices in so many areas of life are extremely limited.

Would you tell people from the slums of Kibera that they can “be anything they want to be, if they just work hard enough?”

My students were right.  These Kenyans don’t believe that they “can be anything they want to be, if they just work hard enough” (another phrase I heard from an American in that group).  These Kenyans know that this phrase is simply false.  And so, there was a real disconnect between this American way of thinking and the reality of life for these people.

I then asked my students why they knew this and this other team from America did not.  My students had to reflect on this for a few moments.  Someone finally concluded that they listened to the people they met at Maai Mahiu.  My students knew that they should try to understand the situation that these people were in.

But why did these students listen?  Why did they know that they should work to understand the people of Maai Mahiu?  I told them to think about their education.  Excluding the specific class they were taking for this trip to Kenya, where had they learned to listen and understand people who were different from them?  They then discussed a range of classes that they had taken at Malone where they did these sorts of things.  Seven different classes were named specifically.

Why does this matter?  It matters because far too many American evangelicals embark on short term missions trip without a deep sense that, even though they may go to serve, they also need to be learners.  They need to be ready and willing to deepen their understanding of the people they serve.  Far too many evangelicals take the attitude that since they have Christ in their lives, they do not need to learn anything about the people they visit.  They just need to “love on” others and everything will be fine.

But it is not fine.  It is true that God’s grace still works, despite our faults.  It is true that love conquers a multitude of sins.  It is true that this group that I used as an example did some wonderful things.  But it is also true that our efforts can be limited or distorted because of our sins.  It is true that the sin of pride, in assuming we know all we need to know, is a sin that we don’t have to commit.  Many cross-cultural sins can be taken care of through a servant attitude toward learning.  But without a humble attitude toward learning, well-intentioned short-term missions end up with limited effectiveness.  I talked with several Kenyan Christian leaders who, while welcoming and supportive of Americans coming to participate in their ministries, indicated that some groups do not have a good sense of these things.  As my friend Esther said, (in a phrase I find simultaneously telling and painful), she has seen many Americans arrive in Kenya with an attitude that “the Savior has landed!”

These American evangelicals probably would be surprised to find a good number of African Christians whose spiritual maturity is much deeper than their own.

Of course, there are American evangelical leaders who understand these things.  For instance, I know of a famous Baptist preacher who said, in a speech in a missions convention, that we must carry out “our ideas as being ourselves learners.”

But wait.  That Baptist guy was Francis Wayland who was born in 1796.  He gave the speech in 1854.


I mention this because as a historian of these kinds of things, I can find evangelical missionaries saying roughly the same thing to their American audiences in about every decade since the 1850s.  Many evangelicals don’t get it.  They don’t listen.  And they don’t learn.  The result?  We keep on sending people out into cross-cultural situations who do not draw upon the insights from the past.  As a result, every generation has to reinvent the wheel.  It is still happening today, folks.

Here is one small suggestion:  if you belong to a church that sends out short-term missions, see what you can do to help your church prepare for these trips.  I would recommend a book by David Livermore called Serving with Eyes Wide Open:  Doing Short-term Missions with Cultural Intelligence.  It is very thoughtful, accessible, and written with ordinary evangelicals in mind.

Buy this book!

If your church group reads this book and takes it seriously, they will go out with greater cultural intelligence.  They are less likely to give off the impression that, now that they have arrived, the Savior has landed.

(And for those of you who are weak on your theology, let me mention that the Savior landed about, oh, two thousand years ago).

“The Abolitionists” on PBS

If you are interested in abolition in the United States, PBS is running a series this month.  I’ve already missed the first episode, I’m afraid, but the second is Tuesday night at 9 p.m.

The series focuses on five important abolitionists in the U.S. — Frederick Douglass, Angelina Grimke, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown.  I’m not sure how PBS will handle the religious issues involved, though I would say all five were influenced, to greater or lesser extent, by evangelicalism, though I think I might only classify Grimke, Stowe and Brown as evangelicals.

For a nice analysis of how evangelicalism shaped Angelina Grimke, you might want to read what the historian Carol Berkin has to say about her at the Huffington Post.

Thanks also to John Fea who tipped me off to both of these sources.