Saturday, April 21, 2012

May God By Any Name...Be Praised

I have been neglecting my blog, in part because for the past 13 weeks my time has been spent taking the class "Perspectives on the World Christian Movement." Today it occurred to me to share one of my personal responses from the class as a blog post. It may encourage you; it may disturb you; it may stimulate your thinking. In any case, may the one true living God in three persons be praised!

I particularly loved the reading for Chapter 10, especially the Redemptive Analogy stories and examples of using locally recognized names for God.

The over-arching theme was the concept of working within cultural frameworks -using what is good and workable and familiar to any particular ethnic group- to build relationships, communicate the gospel, and start churches.

It has always intrigued me that so many different cultures have stories that resemble the salvation story in some way. One example from the reading is The Asmat people and the “New Birth” ritual between warring villages that they observe. This practice sheds light on the biblical concept of being born again. Another example is the osuwa of the Yali culture of Irian Jaya. It took a long time for missionaries to discover this redemptive analogy, but that discovery allowed them to liken the osuwa -a sacred place of refuge- to Jesus, who is our refuge. This understanding of Jesus made all the difference in the lives of the Yali.

It makes sense for missionaries to get well enough acquainted with a culture to discover these links and use them in communicating the gospel, because these are already known concepts to which the people can easily relate. It is important for missionaries to view these redemptive analogies as opportunities rather than obstacles -to not only tolerate them, but to seek them out and make use of them.

One of my favorite stories was the one of the sycamore tree that had special significance among the Gedeo tribesmen in Ethiopia, who believed that Magano, the Creator, would one day send a messenger to camp under that tree. When Albert Brant of the Sudan Interior Mission unknowingly camped under the tree there was a huge response to the gospel, resulting in 250 churches starting over the next 30 years. Now that’s opportunity!

I find it especially poignant that our word “God” is an Anglo-Saxon name for Deity that the Celtic missionaries used, rather that insisting on the use of Jewish or Greek names such as Theos. Similarly, Allah is a pre-Islamic word for God. This is food for thought, especially for those who might insist that Muslims give up using the name “Isa” which is familiar to them, and use our word “Jesus” instead. In this case, the person of Isa is our common ground with Muslims –in many cases the best gateway to mutual respect and understanding. We can either choose to build on our common knowledge or begin with an argument about who “Isa” is or is not. The latter approach seems counterproductive, and more likely to cause a greater rift instead of beginning to build a bridge. Another way to phrase this is that God is much greater than any title assigned to Him. Far more important than what we call Him is who we perceive Him to be and how we respond to Him.

That God “can have ten thousand aliases if need be, in ten thousand languages,” may be a radical or dangerous notion to some, but it makes sense to me. In the Bible alone many names and descriptors are used for God. He is, after all, the Word, and yet we can never fully describe Him with just one.


  1. Very, VERY interesting, Sharlyn. Much to ponder for sure. Finding that common ground is so important.

  2. Love this, Shari! I'll pop it into JournEzine later, if that's okay. I remember teaching during one of our medical camps, about the blood sacrifice and how God provided it. So many Indians were moved. When I turned to pray toward the end I saw that I was standing in front of a statue of Durga, the Indian god who requires a blood sacrifice (but doesn't provide it). There are many things in the Indian holy books that point to Jesus. It's incredible. One Indian pastor helped me to find them passages and teach some meetings from them. An AMEN and a small reflection on your blog ♥

  3. Hey Mrs. Guthrie-

    That is great to hear that you are taking Perspectives. I am interested in hearing more of your thoughts about the class!

    This may come as a shock, but there is only one Perspectives class in all of NYC. We are really trying to get another one going!

    1. I'm just finishing up my project -due Monday! I would be happy to discuss it with you!


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