|Text and Context in Dialogue|
Letters to the Editor
In the November issue of Voice of Bhakti, you asked the question: "Where are you on the H-Scale, and where should you be?" I must say, I am a firm H2 and quite comfortable staying in that category. My wife, a Newar believer, is also an H2 - a natural result of growing up in a pastor's home here in Kathmandu. The thing is, I don't know if that is necessarily a bad thing. I'm sure you can argue that taking such a stand alienates Hindu seekers, but what is really at stake' I would maintain that the glory of Christ is of chief concern, above all else.
How do you interpret Luke 14:26: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters, as well as his own life, he can't be my disciple?" The Nepalese church has obeyed Jesus' words here by "hating" everything to do with the Hindu religion, and I believe the faith of the Nepali church is stronger for it. Sure, I recognize how much legalism goes on in the church here. And I don't doubt that there are aspects of their culture that they need not reject. But over all, I think they should be commended for taking such a bold stance against idolatry. It honors the Lord Jesus. I'm a firm believer in the Bible's teaching that it is God who elects whosoever He wills to salvation (Romans 9, Ephesians 1 and a multitude of other passages), so I honestly don't believe the stance the Nepalese church has taken against tika, prasad, etc. will keep anyone out of the Kingdom of God. On the contrary, Christ is glorified by their strict, untainted devotion to Him alone.
When I look down the "H-Scale", the farther down the scale you go, when you get to H3, H4 and beyond, I see weakened faith. Further down, H5, H6 and so on seem like disciples with not only weakened faith but who have actually become ashamed to a degree to identify with Christ. And instead of Christ being glorified through their lives, he is dishonored. These people are regularly visiting Hindu temples according to the H-Scale. How in the world can that be honoring to Christ? How can God be pleased that they honor their parents by visiting a temple, if by visiting the temple, they dishonor Christ?
You asked if it would be okay for the Nepali believer to eat prasad if he was in the room when the ritual was performed but was only a passive observer. I'd like to answer that question by a situation that happened to me: I was invited to festival in Khokana by a Hindu friend of mine who lives there. In their celebration that I witnessed, they sacrificed a bull. After the sacrifice, two men, wearing masks danced in a trace - dancing barefoot in the blood of that bull for what seemed like hours. I physically felt polluted for days - tainted by the evil that I witnessed. I did not go into that village with the baggage that converts from Hinduism carry. I come from the states and have never had anything to do with idol worship. Nevertheless, I was polluted by the demonic realm, just by being there as a passive observer. In fact, I was not even passive. I prayed against what I witnessed. But the fact that I observed it stained me by its evil.
And so when you ask the question would it be okay for former Hindus to eat Prasad that they witnessed being sacrificed to idols? I would have to say, 'Absolutely not!' Of course the idol is nothing. But why should a believer ever take what he and the one who offered it knows was sacrificed to an idol/demon? They should stay away from it. Acts chapter 15 is a great example of this. After declaring in verse 11 that it is only by grace that any of us are saved, and being unwilling to lay the yoke of the law on the shoulders of the Gentiles, the Apostles still commanded them to abstain from food polluted by idols (verses 20, 29). Why did they lay this "yoke" on the Gentiles after admitting that salvation is entirely by grace? Because these were converts who had come out of idolatry, similar to Nepalis people. I believe it is clear, than, from scripture, that Nepali converts from Hindu backgrounds are in the same boat as those Gentiles of Acts 15. They, too, need to be commanded to abstain from food sacrificed to idols.
I'm sure you know as well as I that all through Israel's history, they were going astray because they didn't completely weed out every form of idolatry. I would encourage you and the readers of Voice of Bhakti to read 2 Kings 12 through 18 (Specifically: 12:3; 14:4; 15:4, 35; 16:4; 17:7-35; 18:1-5). You will see stories of good kings and bad kings. Some of them tried to get rid of Idolatry in Judea, but God never misses pointing out each king's fault: Each failed to tear down the high places. Finally, in chapter 18, Hezekiah king of Judea does what no one else would do: He tore down the high places and ever speck of Idolatry! When you read through those several chapters, you feel relief when you get to Hezekiah - that finally someone has done what God wanted all along. God said there was no king like Hezekiah, neither before or after him. That is what God wanted, people like him who could not tolerate any form of idolatry. Is it so bad that perhaps the Nepalese church has modelled itself after Hezekiah? He did what was right in the sight of the Lord and I tend to believe the Nepali church is doing the same by rejecting every form of idolatry.
Again I ask the question, 'What is at stake' My answer: Christ's glory is at stake. I know there is a need for some degree of contextualization to be all things to all men. But contextualization is dangerous when it causes people to become weak in the faith, secret believers, or ashamed of the faith they have embraced and ultimately ashamed of Jesus to some degree. They are better off to be emboldened in their faith as Hezekiah was, breaking every graven image and tearing down every high place.
You state that, "The Nepalese church has obeyed Jesus' words here by 'hating' everything to do with the Hindu religion". It seems to me that there are three problems with this assertion:
Firstly, you seem to understand the term 'hate' in Luke 14:26 as a literal malevolence. Jesus' command, however, must be interpreted in the context of other biblical injunctions such as "Love your neighbour as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:31) and "Be merciful just as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36). In his Tyndale NT Commentary on Luke, Leon Morris writes, "...it is impossible to hold that He is here telling them literally to hate their earthly nearest" (p. 235). Jesus himself condemned the Pharisees for encouraging people to hate their father and mother and thus setting aside the Word of God in order to observe their own traditions (Mark 7:8-13). In Luke 14:26 then Jesus was clearly using hyperbole to awaken the large crowds to the cost of discipleship. Loving Jesus is costly. It demands a commitment that makes loving your father and mother seem like hatred in comparison.
Secondly, and presumably by extension from Luke 14:26, you assert that Jesus would have Nepali believers hate Hindu religion. But there is a problem here in the way you use the phrase 'Hindu religion'. It is the easiest thing to say, as many do, that one should accept whatever is cultural and reject whatever is religious, but impossible to do in practice. Does one, for instance, condemn the Muslim for his alms giving? Giving to the poor is an important part of his religion. Surely one should affirm alms giving to the Muslim who trusts in Jesus. In the same way Hindus, along with followers of many traditional religious paths, place a great religious emphasis on giving respect to ones parents. It is part of his dharma. And according to the Bible, when that Hindu puts his trust in the Lord Jesus, it must remain so. The Sanskrit word dharma (which is a commonly used word in South Asian vernaculars) is often glossed as 'religion' and like its English equivalent is notoriously difficult to define. Your suggestion that the Nepali believer must hate Hindu religion, then, is bound to cause a great deal of confusion.
Thirdly, your assertion makes it sound like the Nepalese church is united in its opposition to all things Hindu. But that is not the case. It is true that the dominant position has fitted in H2. But there has always been discussion over the wearing of bangles, the colour of a wedding sari, and the observance of rites of passage. Today there are movements advocating H3 and H5 that are as Nepalese as the dominant position. It is misleading, then, to talk of the Nepalese church as if it is monolithic.
The decision of the council at Jerusalem in Acts 15 must not be seen as normative for the church in Nepal. The reason is this: the Jerusalem decision was addressing a particular situation at a particular time. The order to abstain from food polluted by idols is one of four rules (sometimes called the Jerusalem Quadrilateral). The Gentile believers were also to abstain from "sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood" (Acts 15:20). Some commentators have taken hold of a textual problem (there is a discrepancy between some of the manuscripts) to drop the prohibition against the meat of strangled animals and have then interpreted the remaining three as all moral issues (blood, in this case, meaning murder). This is hardly possible for the following reasons: (i) the textual warrant for dropping the rule about food polluted by idols is very weak; (ii) it is really stretching the text to argue that 'blood' means murder; (iii) if the eating of food polluted by idols is actually idolatry then Paul's teaching in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 does not make sense; and (iv) there does not seem to be any reason to emphasise these three laws to the exclusion of the rest of the moral law.
It is better, then, to take the text as it stands and to interpret all four rules as relating to OT ceremonial law. (The command to abstain from unlawful sexual relations must relate to the prohibitions of Leviticus 18, not to the seventh commandment.) This is made clear in v. 21, where James relates the rules to the contemporary reading of the Mosaic Law. So the rules imposed by the Jerusalem council were not because the Gentiles were just coming out of an idolatrous background but because the believers from Jewish background, with whom they had fellowship, would be particularly offended by such behaviour. As J.A. Alexander comments, "The abstinence here recommended must be understood ... not as an essential Christian duty, but as a concession to the consciences of others, i.e. of the Jewish converts, who still regarded such foods as unlawful and abominable in the sight of God" (quoted with approval by John Stott in The Message of Acts, Leicester: IVP, 1990 p. 250). Since the Nepali church is entirely Gentile, therefore, this particular rule is not to be imposed on the believers. Paul's later references to idol-meats in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 make it clear that an outright ban on its consumption was not intended, even among former idolaters.
You assert that visiting temples brings dishonour to Christ. On what basis - that of association? It didn't seem to trouble Elisha, as I have already pointed out (Lifting the yoke, VOB 3:3, August 2004, p. 16). Idol worship is roundly condemned throughout the Bible, but the visiting of a pagan temple is not. I know mature Nepali believers who visit a temple whenever they are invited to a feast in its precincts. How can they refuse to attend their relative's wedding simply because it is held at a temple? I suggest that casting judgement on such an action is to disregard Paul's (and Jesus') injunctions against censoriousness (Romans 14:1 - 15:13).
You hold up Hezekiah as a model for the Nepali church to follow. But Daniel is surely a more helpful model. Like Nepali believers (and all believes now that the people of God is not equivalent to a nation state) Daniel was called to live among a people who did not share his devotion to the one true God. Nevertheless, he learned the language and literature of the Babylonians (Daniel 1: 4). He did not worship idols and neither did he break them down. He was not called to do that. Neither are Nepali believers.
Personal experiences are not a reliable guide to ethical issues but since you have shared one let me do so too. The person in the room observing a ritual was I. I was offered prasad from the presiding priest. Indeed two priests came at me in a pincer movement and insisted I take it - there was no running away! I didn't go after it. I knew it was not going to do anything to me spiritually. But I did accept it, I hope, graciously. I could have protested but it was not the time or place to go into a discussion about the vanity of their ritual. I did not feel dirty. I felt honoured that the priests wanted to share the blessing (as they saw it) with me even though I was clearly an outsider. I have also observed a number of masked dance-dramas, including one by the Khokana troupe. I never felt stained by evil. Indeed, the experience had two positive effects: it encouraged me to pray more fervently for the Newar people and it gave me a key insight into Newar culture, which I hope has helped me in my witnessing. None of us can experience anything in life without baggage. We are biased by our pre-understandings to see things a certain way, no matter what our background is. That is why it is more reliable to look to Scripture than to our feelings for clues to the meaning of local customs or the spiritual realities that attend them.
So I shall not condemn you for feeling comfortable in H2. And I hope that you would also not condemn those who feel comfortable in H5.