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Beyond Colonialism: Reconstructing Christian Mission

In a conversation with my friend John (who thinks in terms of ministry with gang bangers and homeboys), he made a startling statement: “Colonialism is all about sorcery.”

“Really?” I responded in surprise.

“Yes,” he said. “Sorcery is about manipulating power for the benefit of particular people at the expense of others.”

“True,” I said, “but as a characterization
of colonialism, and by extension Christian mission?”

“Sure,” John said. “Britain took poppies from China, processed them, and sent opium back to China—and other places. It was blatant hegemony. They did the same thing with minerals and ore from African mines: processed it and created economic tyranny by selling it back to the people at great markup. Such sorcery has been the hallmark of colonialism.”

John’s comments provoked my thinking about the role of missions in the world today. We rightly sought to proclaim “good news” but inadvertently communicated our way of thinking at the expense of equally valid ways to understand God’s Word. How did we get from seeing sorcery in others to becoming sorcerers? How can we emulate Christ rather than proclaiming a foreign gospel? What follows are my musings on deconstructing colonialism and reconstructing the relevance of the gospel.

Setting the Context for Christian Mission

In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas helped post-Roman Empire thinkers process Greek ideas in light of Roman assumptions—a process very much impacted by Bible translation from Hebrew to Greek to Latin.1 This set the stage for the Enlightenment. In its natural progression, Roman compartmentalization, philosophy, and science moved “modern” thinking from the transcendental to scientific objectification. That objects can be studied led to the scientific approach and research. Ultimately, if something can’t be seen, it can’t be quantified, and therefore can’t be studied. Hence telescopes, microscopes, atom busters, and so much more were developed to make the unseeable seeable and thereby enable it to be studied, analyzed, and understood without the need for a “supernatural explanation.” But taking this to its logical conclusion, ultimately, there are no objects; energy and matter blend—e=mc2. Nothing really exists beyond its time and space. Everything is in motion. So-called chaos theory—Lorenz attractors with their movement around a center—and relativity prevail. Perhaps Hinduism was right all along: there is no reality—ooooommmmm.

This growing sense of meaninglessness pervades our thinking of colonialism as well. Sociologist Mave O’Collins noted a progressive development from colonialism (outsiders doing their thing), to neo-colonialism (insiders doing things the outsider way) to post-colonialism (insiders doing things their own way).2 As people around the world have moved through the first two stages, a sense of meaninglessness arose. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz noted that bafflement, suffering, and injustice are all reactions to perceived chaos, which human beings overcome with religious ideology.4 In The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness, Peter Berger, a sociologist, struggles with the way modernization—read: neo-colonialism—threatens us with fragmentation and loss of meaning.4 Indeed, colonialism introduced an external characterization that robbed people of their identity, as Chinua Achebe made so clear in his classic Nigeria-based novel Things Fall Apart.5

This loss of meaning is a major challenge in our era of globalization. An Enlightenment and colonial message brought to relational people, who process their feelings communally, has created a sense of meaninglessness in many contexts around the world.6 Globalization is an enigma. But there is a biblical response available to us. In the prologue to his Gospel, John writes, “In the beginning was ‘meaning’” (a focus on the depth of the Logos). The one who created everything and gave it meaning joined humanity, providing presence, power through the Holy Spirit, and “meaning” (John 1:14). God the Creator became Jesus the Jew. Incarnation as a theological principle dominates the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation—it is the story of the Bible.

O’Collins asks how such relational peoples can remain themselves while joining the “global” community, dominated by neo-colonial thinking. Similarly, we must ask how to move beyond colonialism and encourage people to be who they really are while also being part of our contemporary world and, by extension, the global church. Moving from Enlightenment and Modernity—with its focus on objects, products, and quantification—to a focus on relationship, process, and honor, is crucial in today’s world.7 God’s desire is that human beings enjoy relationships with the people God has made and use that understanding to perceive their relationship with God. This is the first and second commandments in action (Matt 22:38).

Deconstructing Christian Mission

God created human beings to be, to live, and to think, and God gave them the capacity to follow their Creator’s creativity. They have created cultures, “webs of significance [they themselves have] spun,” as Geertz phrases it.8 Culture, expressed as webs of experience, creates a way of doing things, of living life, and of judging others based on those experiences. Romans 2 suggests people are not able to measure up to their own socioreligious standards and therefore cannot expect to live up to God’s laws—their culturally conditioned conscience condemns them. Their failure proves their fallen humanity, on one hand, and their need for external intervention (beyond human, scientific, and existential rationality) available only from God (Rom 3). As Paul demonstrates through the rest of Romans, human beings are created spiritual beings (Ps 8). Therefore, we innately try to realize our spirituality in ways that make sense, hence the creation of religion—searching for God.

Anthropologists have long been interested in religious beliefs and their expressions. In his treatise on how anthropology and Christianity have influenced each other, Timothy Larsen chronicles how anthropologists’ descriptions of religious beliefs and practices are unconsciously a product of their own faith journey.9 E. B. Tylor heralded African animism as grounds for the plausibility of Catholic doctrine10 while James Frazer eschewed human sacrifice but made the slain God the focus of his famous Golden Bough.11 E. E. Evans-Pritchard not only recognized Nuer mysticism as reflective of the biblical Hebrews but also the value of the Torah for his anthropological reflection on Nuer religious experience.12 Mary Douglas found the Lele Pangolin cult “uncannily . . .  like Christ,” thereby connecting her life-long adherence to Catholicism with her anthropological research.13 For Victor and Edith Turner, conversion to Catholicism could be viewed as a product of their attention to Ndembu rituals and the creation of communitas.14

Throughout their writing, these anthropologists regularly forefront theological themes. Larsen goes so far as to see anthropology and theology as “conversation partners,” complimentary to each other rather than antithetical.15 In fact, Evans-Pritchard categorically notes, for the Nuer, “meaning depends finally on an awareness of God and that men [sic] are dependent on him and must be resigned to his will. At this point the theologian takes over from the anthropologist.”16 As anthropologists sought to discover new expressions of God and the beliefs and values that drove such behavior, they recognized people’s religious experience generally pointed to a holistic (more Hebrew) view of the relationship between the Creator and creation. The sacred and secular were united. Ironically, anthropologists, in general, cannot ignore God by virtue of the people they study.

In contrast, we who have engaged in mission have tended to absolutize God and present him in our own likeness. Missionaries brought an intellectual, theologically sophisticated, superhuman being that is unrecognizable and relationally distant. As it turns out, our spiritually aware “subjects” know things about the Creator we have lost—we have much to learn from them. Missionaries have encouraged people to substitute a set of conceptual frames unfamiliar to relational approaches subsumed by a majority of the world’s people.17 Those we seek to enlighten are often closer to the intentions of biblical writers than those who sought to explicate Scripture. We can expect to gain insight into God through an appreciation of human ideas about God.

Throughout the so-called age of reason, missionaries closely followed the leading edge of “civilization.” Mission was closely tied to civilization, commerce, and Christanity. Missionaries went around the world pushing their brand of Enlightenment ideas to the rest of the world.18 When missionaries tried to sell Enlightenment concepts to a relational world, people didn’t get it. It did not make sense to them. Too often missionaries advocated forms of Christianity people dismissed as foreign and of no relevance to their lives and communities. Like the British pushing processed opium in China, missionaries have presented a way of thinking they believed to be true and made it so for everyone. Instead, people need to process the truth of God’s Word in ways that match the complexities of their world.19

Reconstructing Christian Mission

Throughout colonial history, the sorcery my friend John described has prevailed. Western missionaries, with the globalizing influences they cherished, have rationalized their views and used their power to replace existing beliefs and practices with a religion that reflected a largely Western ideology. This brings us back to O’Collins’s colonial progression. For the gospel to be “good news,” we must present God’s views in the particularity of a specific cognitive environment and then watch what people do with it. In this way the gospel is internally sustainable. The story of the Bible is all about God’s way. And yet to be relevant and grab human attention, God connects his way with each society’s way in order to reach everyone. That’s what incarnation is about.

Missionaries, then, must be bearers of a message that makes sense but also reflects the totality of what it means for each faith community to be part of the larger universal church—one faith, one Lord. Somehow, we in the West must abandon Enlightenment thinking, eschew objectivity, and accentuate the application of God’s Word to the reality of daily living. The practical demonstration of God’s faithfulness within the reality of any lifestyle will grab people’s attention. Rather than manipulating power for our benefit, no matter how well intentioned, we must release people to become who God intends them to be, people with a culture and dignity for whom Christ died. While much of our way of viewing spiritual reality has biblical support, it is only one way, not “the” way. The gospel must reflect God’s way so people can receive and process it in the dynamic context of human actuality.20 Only when a relevant message matches a people’s cognitive environment can they process the gospel and pass it on to others, within their context and beyond.

For example, my interaction with the Samo has been a dual journey of anthropological exaltation and missiological development.21 As a Bible translator and an anthropologist, I sought to connect biblical truth to cultural truth as reflected in their mythology. The similarity of their myths to the Bible stories we translated led them to recognize God’s preservation of truth despite the distance their ancestors had migrated from biblical lands to the heart of the island of New Guinea. As their mythology reveals, the “old man” put his foot in their mud, and now they know that old man was God. Their social structure led to introducing a term for God that forced them to recognize the humanity of their enemies and cease cannibal raids because God has authority over everyone. The structure of their three-day initiation ceremony and their healing rituals provided a way to organize their understanding of how and why the emergent church could honor God while maintaining practices that harbored deep spiritual expectations. And finally, their understanding of the role of the ancestors being reincarnated in each generation provided an appreciation for how God takes followers of Jesus to Heaven where they remain with God and are removed from the never-ending cycle of birth-death-and-rebirth. This reinterpreted understanding of “everlasting life” created a new awareness of “born again” that changed my own perspective of John 3:16. Along with the Samo, I too was being born again.22

By focusing on what God said, the Samo could apply what God intended, what Jesus modeled, and how the Holy Spirit empowered. As followers of Jesus, they became better members of their society rather than marginalized Christians. They demonstrated how others can move beyond our Western forms of Christianity. Jesus walked with the people, talked their language, and critiqued the religious views of the day from a biblical perspective. We who follow Jesus must do the same and thereby equip others to influence their world just as the Holy Spirit-empowered disciples (Acts 17:6).

Teaching Christian Mission

Teaching contemporary missionaries from around the world is our task at Fuller’s School of Mission and Theology. Since Donald McGavran founded the School of World Mission in 1965, we have been a resource for multicultural education. Led by Alan Tippett, an anthropologist, and influenced by students from every continent, we have had the opportunity to apply our multicultural experience and learn from others. They took our cross-cultural courses home to have an impact on their people.23 People must make sense of those ideas in ways that matter to them, not to us. Somehow, we need to give our students the freedom to move out of our boxes and encourage them to jump into theirs. The questions that emerge from their contexts are very different from ours, as Jean Marc Éla made clear for the Cameroon24 and Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator explicates in his “Confessions of an Animist.”25 Similarly, Richard Twiss celebrates “rescuing the gospel from the cowboys.”26 As O’Collins notes, moving beyond colonialism is essential if people are to respond to sociocultural expressions (including their spirituality) in ways relevant to their time and place.27 Only then can culturally imposed assumptions be incorporated with the global church. Enabling this to happen is the task before us at Fuller Seminary.

As my friend John agonized, we must move beyond our provincialism and our colonialism. Encouraging people to take God seriously is our purpose in mission-focused education. The interaction with every language, people group, and nation, learning from each other and experiencing God’s presence as it has always been, is now, and will be, is our purpose and goal. May it be so as we learn from each other and come to know God in new and ever-expanding ways.

Written By

R. Daniel Shaw is senior professor of anthropology and translation. He has been at Fuller since 1982, when he set up the translation program for the School of World Mission (now the School of Mission and Theology), and he currently directs the DIS/DGL program in the Pacific where he seeks to enable the next generation of Pacific Islanders to serve their own people academically and missionally. Shaw frequently speaks and presents at mission conferences and anthropological meetings around the world, and he regularly consults and teaches on anthropology, Bible translation, cross-cultural evangelism, and training. A widely published author and editor, his most recent book is Singing Samo Songs: From Shaman to Pastor.

In a conversation with my friend John (who thinks in terms of ministry with gang bangers and homeboys), he made a startling statement: “Colonialism is all about sorcery.”

“Really?” I responded in surprise.

“Yes,” he said. “Sorcery is about manipulating power for the benefit of particular people at the expense of others.”

“True,” I said, “but as a characterization
of colonialism, and by extension Christian mission?”

“Sure,” John said. “Britain took poppies from China, processed them, and sent opium back to China—and other places. It was blatant hegemony. They did the same thing with minerals and ore from African mines: processed it and created economic tyranny by selling it back to the people at great markup. Such sorcery has been the hallmark of colonialism.”

John’s comments provoked my thinking about the role of missions in the world today. We rightly sought to proclaim “good news” but inadvertently communicated our way of thinking at the expense of equally valid ways to understand God’s Word. How did we get from seeing sorcery in others to becoming sorcerers? How can we emulate Christ rather than proclaiming a foreign gospel? What follows are my musings on deconstructing colonialism and reconstructing the relevance of the gospel.

Setting the Context for Christian Mission

In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas helped post-Roman Empire thinkers process Greek ideas in light of Roman assumptions—a process very much impacted by Bible translation from Hebrew to Greek to Latin.1 This set the stage for the Enlightenment. In its natural progression, Roman compartmentalization, philosophy, and science moved “modern” thinking from the transcendental to scientific objectification. That objects can be studied led to the scientific approach and research. Ultimately, if something can’t be seen, it can’t be quantified, and therefore can’t be studied. Hence telescopes, microscopes, atom busters, and so much more were developed to make the unseeable seeable and thereby enable it to be studied, analyzed, and understood without the need for a “supernatural explanation.” But taking this to its logical conclusion, ultimately, there are no objects; energy and matter blend—e=mc2. Nothing really exists beyond its time and space. Everything is in motion. So-called chaos theory—Lorenz attractors with their movement around a center—and relativity prevail. Perhaps Hinduism was right all along: there is no reality—ooooommmmm.

This growing sense of meaninglessness pervades our thinking of colonialism as well. Sociologist Mave O’Collins noted a progressive development from colonialism (outsiders doing their thing), to neo-colonialism (insiders doing things the outsider way) to post-colonialism (insiders doing things their own way).2 As people around the world have moved through the first two stages, a sense of meaninglessness arose. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz noted that bafflement, suffering, and injustice are all reactions to perceived chaos, which human beings overcome with religious ideology.4 In The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness, Peter Berger, a sociologist, struggles with the way modernization—read: neo-colonialism—threatens us with fragmentation and loss of meaning.4 Indeed, colonialism introduced an external characterization that robbed people of their identity, as Chinua Achebe made so clear in his classic Nigeria-based novel Things Fall Apart.5

This loss of meaning is a major challenge in our era of globalization. An Enlightenment and colonial message brought to relational people, who process their feelings communally, has created a sense of meaninglessness in many contexts around the world.6 Globalization is an enigma. But there is a biblical response available to us. In the prologue to his Gospel, John writes, “In the beginning was ‘meaning’” (a focus on the depth of the Logos). The one who created everything and gave it meaning joined humanity, providing presence, power through the Holy Spirit, and “meaning” (John 1:14). God the Creator became Jesus the Jew. Incarnation as a theological principle dominates the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation—it is the story of the Bible.

O’Collins asks how such relational peoples can remain themselves while joining the “global” community, dominated by neo-colonial thinking. Similarly, we must ask how to move beyond colonialism and encourage people to be who they really are while also being part of our contemporary world and, by extension, the global church. Moving from Enlightenment and Modernity—with its focus on objects, products, and quantification—to a focus on relationship, process, and honor, is crucial in today’s world.7 God’s desire is that human beings enjoy relationships with the people God has made and use that understanding to perceive their relationship with God. This is the first and second commandments in action (Matt 22:38).

Deconstructing Christian Mission

God created human beings to be, to live, and to think, and God gave them the capacity to follow their Creator’s creativity. They have created cultures, “webs of significance [they themselves have] spun,” as Geertz phrases it.8 Culture, expressed as webs of experience, creates a way of doing things, of living life, and of judging others based on those experiences. Romans 2 suggests people are not able to measure up to their own socioreligious standards and therefore cannot expect to live up to God’s laws—their culturally conditioned conscience condemns them. Their failure proves their fallen humanity, on one hand, and their need for external intervention (beyond human, scientific, and existential rationality) available only from God (Rom 3). As Paul demonstrates through the rest of Romans, human beings are created spiritual beings (Ps 8). Therefore, we innately try to realize our spirituality in ways that make sense, hence the creation of religion—searching for God.

Anthropologists have long been interested in religious beliefs and their expressions. In his treatise on how anthropology and Christianity have influenced each other, Timothy Larsen chronicles how anthropologists’ descriptions of religious beliefs and practices are unconsciously a product of their own faith journey.9 E. B. Tylor heralded African animism as grounds for the plausibility of Catholic doctrine10 while James Frazer eschewed human sacrifice but made the slain God the focus of his famous Golden Bough.11 E. E. Evans-Pritchard not only recognized Nuer mysticism as reflective of the biblical Hebrews but also the value of the Torah for his anthropological reflection on Nuer religious experience.12 Mary Douglas found the Lele Pangolin cult “uncannily . . .  like Christ,” thereby connecting her life-long adherence to Catholicism with her anthropological research.13 For Victor and Edith Turner, conversion to Catholicism could be viewed as a product of their attention to Ndembu rituals and the creation of communitas.14

Throughout their writing, these anthropologists regularly forefront theological themes. Larsen goes so far as to see anthropology and theology as “conversation partners,” complimentary to each other rather than antithetical.15 In fact, Evans-Pritchard categorically notes, for the Nuer, “meaning depends finally on an awareness of God and that men [sic] are dependent on him and must be resigned to his will. At this point the theologian takes over from the anthropologist.”16 As anthropologists sought to discover new expressions of God and the beliefs and values that drove such behavior, they recognized people’s religious experience generally pointed to a holistic (more Hebrew) view of the relationship between the Creator and creation. The sacred and secular were united. Ironically, anthropologists, in general, cannot ignore God by virtue of the people they study.

In contrast, we who have engaged in mission have tended to absolutize God and present him in our own likeness. Missionaries brought an intellectual, theologically sophisticated, superhuman being that is unrecognizable and relationally distant. As it turns out, our spiritually aware “subjects” know things about the Creator we have lost—we have much to learn from them. Missionaries have encouraged people to substitute a set of conceptual frames unfamiliar to relational approaches subsumed by a majority of the world’s people.17 Those we seek to enlighten are often closer to the intentions of biblical writers than those who sought to explicate Scripture. We can expect to gain insight into God through an appreciation of human ideas about God.

Throughout the so-called age of reason, missionaries closely followed the leading edge of “civilization.” Mission was closely tied to civilization, commerce, and Christanity. Missionaries went around the world pushing their brand of Enlightenment ideas to the rest of the world.18 When missionaries tried to sell Enlightenment concepts to a relational world, people didn’t get it. It did not make sense to them. Too often missionaries advocated forms of Christianity people dismissed as foreign and of no relevance to their lives and communities. Like the British pushing processed opium in China, missionaries have presented a way of thinking they believed to be true and made it so for everyone. Instead, people need to process the truth of God’s Word in ways that match the complexities of their world.19

Reconstructing Christian Mission

Throughout colonial history, the sorcery my friend John described has prevailed. Western missionaries, with the globalizing influences they cherished, have rationalized their views and used their power to replace existing beliefs and practices with a religion that reflected a largely Western ideology. This brings us back to O’Collins’s colonial progression. For the gospel to be “good news,” we must present God’s views in the particularity of a specific cognitive environment and then watch what people do with it. In this way the gospel is internally sustainable. The story of the Bible is all about God’s way. And yet to be relevant and grab human attention, God connects his way with each society’s way in order to reach everyone. That’s what incarnation is about.

Missionaries, then, must be bearers of a message that makes sense but also reflects the totality of what it means for each faith community to be part of the larger universal church—one faith, one Lord. Somehow, we in the West must abandon Enlightenment thinking, eschew objectivity, and accentuate the application of God’s Word to the reality of daily living. The practical demonstration of God’s faithfulness within the reality of any lifestyle will grab people’s attention. Rather than manipulating power for our benefit, no matter how well intentioned, we must release people to become who God intends them to be, people with a culture and dignity for whom Christ died. While much of our way of viewing spiritual reality has biblical support, it is only one way, not “the” way. The gospel must reflect God’s way so people can receive and process it in the dynamic context of human actuality.20 Only when a relevant message matches a people’s cognitive environment can they process the gospel and pass it on to others, within their context and beyond.

For example, my interaction with the Samo has been a dual journey of anthropological exaltation and missiological development.21 As a Bible translator and an anthropologist, I sought to connect biblical truth to cultural truth as reflected in their mythology. The similarity of their myths to the Bible stories we translated led them to recognize God’s preservation of truth despite the distance their ancestors had migrated from biblical lands to the heart of the island of New Guinea. As their mythology reveals, the “old man” put his foot in their mud, and now they know that old man was God. Their social structure led to introducing a term for God that forced them to recognize the humanity of their enemies and cease cannibal raids because God has authority over everyone. The structure of their three-day initiation ceremony and their healing rituals provided a way to organize their understanding of how and why the emergent church could honor God while maintaining practices that harbored deep spiritual expectations. And finally, their understanding of the role of the ancestors being reincarnated in each generation provided an appreciation for how God takes followers of Jesus to Heaven where they remain with God and are removed from the never-ending cycle of birth-death-and-rebirth. This reinterpreted understanding of “everlasting life” created a new awareness of “born again” that changed my own perspective of John 3:16. Along with the Samo, I too was being born again.22

By focusing on what God said, the Samo could apply what God intended, what Jesus modeled, and how the Holy Spirit empowered. As followers of Jesus, they became better members of their society rather than marginalized Christians. They demonstrated how others can move beyond our Western forms of Christianity. Jesus walked with the people, talked their language, and critiqued the religious views of the day from a biblical perspective. We who follow Jesus must do the same and thereby equip others to influence their world just as the Holy Spirit-empowered disciples (Acts 17:6).

Teaching Christian Mission

Teaching contemporary missionaries from around the world is our task at Fuller’s School of Mission and Theology. Since Donald McGavran founded the School of World Mission in 1965, we have been a resource for multicultural education. Led by Alan Tippett, an anthropologist, and influenced by students from every continent, we have had the opportunity to apply our multicultural experience and learn from others. They took our cross-cultural courses home to have an impact on their people.23 People must make sense of those ideas in ways that matter to them, not to us. Somehow, we need to give our students the freedom to move out of our boxes and encourage them to jump into theirs. The questions that emerge from their contexts are very different from ours, as Jean Marc Éla made clear for the Cameroon24 and Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator explicates in his “Confessions of an Animist.”25 Similarly, Richard Twiss celebrates “rescuing the gospel from the cowboys.”26 As O’Collins notes, moving beyond colonialism is essential if people are to respond to sociocultural expressions (including their spirituality) in ways relevant to their time and place.27 Only then can culturally imposed assumptions be incorporated with the global church. Enabling this to happen is the task before us at Fuller Seminary.

As my friend John agonized, we must move beyond our provincialism and our colonialism. Encouraging people to take God seriously is our purpose in mission-focused education. The interaction with every language, people group, and nation, learning from each other and experiencing God’s presence as it has always been, is now, and will be, is our purpose and goal. May it be so as we learn from each other and come to know God in new and ever-expanding ways.

Daniel Shaw

R. Daniel Shaw is senior professor of anthropology and translation. He has been at Fuller since 1982, when he set up the translation program for the School of World Mission (now the School of Mission and Theology), and he currently directs the DIS/DGL program in the Pacific where he seeks to enable the next generation of Pacific Islanders to serve their own people academically and missionally. Shaw frequently speaks and presents at mission conferences and anthropological meetings around the world, and he regularly consults and teaches on anthropology, Bible translation, cross-cultural evangelism, and training. A widely published author and editor, his most recent book is Singing Samo Songs: From Shaman to Pastor.

Originally published

November 29, 2023

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Fuller Magazine

Melody Bellefeuille-Frost (MAICS ’16) considers the significant role curiosity plays in art, theology, and mission.