Text and Context in Dialogue

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Dear Editor,

I have just been reading the February edition of Voice of Bhakti and feel constrained to comment on a point made in the article "Wrestling With Spiritual Warfare". First, I should say that I found most of this and the other articles well-balanced and particularly "A Critical Look at a New 'Key' to Evangelization".

However, I was rather disturbed by your statement, "Therefore if Our friends have turned to Christ but still have pictures of Hindu deities in their house we do not insist that they destroy the pictures. If my brother in Christ is seriously tempted to revert to idol worship by the picture hanging on his wall then that may be necessary. But it does not follow automatically."

Taken in the context of Paul's teaching that an idol is nothing - and By extrapolation - these pictures are just pictures, this statement makes a degree of sense. But, the issue is not simply one of whether they might tempt a new believer to revert to idol worship. It is far more complex than that. I believe in fact, that there are several very important and related issues that need to be considered here.

The new believers in Ephesus (Acts 19), who came from an equally Idolatrous background, set us a timeless example by their disposal by burning of all their puja paraphernalia. You may contest this by saying that it was only the deeply involved occult practitioners who did this with their special religious materials and not all the ordinary people. However I believe it embodies a principle that where such objects have been used for worship of deities other than that of the One living God, they are to be discarded.

The apostle John clearly taught, "keep yourselves from idols." (1 John 5:21).  Therefore if such objects have been used as idols in the past, they ought to be removed and we therefore have a responsibility to teach this.

In actual fact, the teaching is usually unnecessary as new believers In this country generally automatically tend to do this of their own accord. Nevertheless, I once heard a true story of a new believer in a large church in Kathmandu. She came for prayer because "Satan was making her afraid". Her counselor wisely discerned the matter and asked the crucial question. "Are you still doing puja?" She was - due to a misunderstanding: she thought that deeply religious people did puja (as of course deeply devoted Hindus do). Once this was cleared up and the idols removed, she had no further trouble. That this story relates to idols (rather than pictures) and involves actual puja (rather than simply displaying them on the wall) is not the main point.   This lady had recently come out of an idolatrous religion and to her devotion was still linked to objects like this.

To a western eye, however, many of these pictures of Hindu deities Appear repulsive but I suspect that is more to do with our cultural aesthetic appreciation than their actual content. Probably, to most Nepalis, they are just a normal Asian art form. Most people nowadays would agree that it is not part of Christian initiation to try to divorce someone from their own historic or traditional culture: rather the reverse, as the Council of Jerusalem ruled (Acts 15). Nevertheless, that same council did insist on the avoidance of eating prasad, which is usually understood as signifying any kind of idolatry. It remains arguable that such pictures are in fact idols as they depict Hindu deities, and in some cases at least, they have been treated as idols - receiving vermilion power and being garlanded in the past.

I would therefore like to ask any new believer who retains such Pictures why he or she does so? Is it because they have not totally put away previous idolatrous beliefs? Or is it because they like that style of art?

Both of these are potentially dangerous positions. Although the comparison is far from exact, there is some similarity with the issue of a western Christian displaying pictures or photos of nudes or pornographic scenes in his/her house simply because they are artistically posed or produced. I assume that there would be no doubt about the teaching offered in such cases - remove them. It is important to understand that it is not just the influence over the one individual that is at stake, but they may also serve as a potential temptation to other believers who visit. In addition, we need to ask what kind witness they give to non-Christians for whom the concept of worship one God is hard enough to grasp without any confounding factors like this.

I think it is significant that I cannot recollect ever seeing such Pictures in the any Nepali Christian home I have visited - and I have many Nepali Christian friends. The only times that I have noticed remaining Hindu or Buddhist artifacts has been when other members of the family are not yet Christian believers. This issue obviously has two sides to it. If the whole family have believed in Christ, then getting rid of former idolatrous things - including pictures - can be a simple matter. But if other family members, in particular, the head of the household, is not a believer, then this is clearly not possible without giving a lot of offence. I personally would not counsel it then, but advise removal only of artifacts from the believer's own personal room or space, plus prayer regarding the those that have to remain. A picture - even a picture of a deity - is not a god, but it can be an idol and represent a god to those who believe in it. And Satan can use it - generally not as a lightening rod - but certainly sometimes as a stumbling block. And the question of where spiritual warfare comes in to deal with such things - well that is another lengthy topic in itself...

"Bal Kumari"

Dr Valerie M Inchley
EPC 5039, PO Box 8975
Email: vinchley@wlink.com.np

I want to thank Dr. Inchley for her thoughtful letter in response to my article 'Wrestling With Spiritual Warfare' (VOB 2:1, Feb. 2003). I would like to reply to her arguments against the counsel to allow believers in Christ to keep pictures of Hindu or Buddhist deities.

Firstly, Dr. Inchley cites the example of the Ephesians who burned their scrolls (Acts 19). According to Dr. Inchley this story 'embodies a principle that where such objects have been used for worship of deities other than that of the One living God, they are to be discarded.' There is, I believe, in Dr. Inchley's statement error both of substance and interpretation. The Ephesians who burned their scrolls were 'a number who had practiced sorcery', i.e. not the wider group of former idolaters. The hermeneutical issue here is whether we are to take the stories in Acts as normative for church life in twenty first century Nepal. If we are, then surely we should also draw straws to choose apostles, share all our possessions and hold our prayer meetings by riversides. We simply cannot take a story from Acts and make that a blueprint for the church in Nepal (or elsewhere for that matter). We need to be more theological. By that I mean we need to look at the entire counsel of God and interpret the parts in the light of the whole. The fact that none of the epistles instructs the believers to get rid of physical paraphernalia surely indicates at least something of the lack of importance of this issue.

But Dr. Inchley mentions John's instruction to 'keep yourselves from idols' (1 Jn 5:21). Surely John is not advocating that the disciples keep themselves physically distant from idols? If he is, then how far were they to stay? Must one, as some do, take a convoluted route to church in order not to pass a temple? What about when we visit relatives and friends who have idols? John must here being talking the same way as Ahimelech does to David when he says, 'there is some consecrated bread here--provided the men have kept themselves from women' (1 Sa 21:4). Whatever the exact meaning of this is, it must be a matter of morals not proximity In terms of idols, then, John must mean 'keep yourselves from the worship of idols'.

The story of the 'new believer' is instructive of the point I am trying to make. Clearly this woman's problem is moral. She is still committing idol worship. As such, she stands under the judgment of God. The advice of the church leaders is confusing as they mix these two issues into one: moral change and proximic change. The shocking thing to me is that the lady is assumed to be a 'believer' even though she still worships idols! On what basis? On the basis that she has been baptized? Would not the Apostle Paul have preached the gospel to her again? Would he not have told her that an idol is nothing just as he did to the Corinthians? To emphasize the physical removal of idols is to give them more respect than they are due.

Now about the instructions of the Jerusalem Council (Ac 15: 19-21). Again we are presented with the question of the normativity of the Acts narrative. If we to instruct believers in Christ to abstain from prasad then we must also abstain from the meat of strangled animals. The mature instructions of Paul to Corinth (1 Co. 8) surely supercede those of the Jerusalem Council.

Dr. Inchley suggests that it is a bad witness to retain an idol in the home. But I will ask, is it a better witness to burn it when it is most likely a wedding gift from the parents? How many have come to Christ as a result of seeing idols smashed and burned?

I have one final comment. Let us please not use the word 'puja' only in a pejorative sense. It means 'worship' not 'idol worship'. We do not call people to give up puja. We call them to do puja to the Lord Jesus Christ and him alone, even as some of our Nepali worship songs put it.

bhakti. bhakti, nom. devotion, love, loyalty