Most American missionaries suffer from a very serious handicap when they go to another culture: lack of understanding of foreign cultures. I don't mean a lack of understanding of the details of the cultural habits and customs and folklore, but lack of covenantal understanding, of the religious foundations of a culture which would oppose-intellectually and psychologically-the preaching of the gospel.
Before a missionary moves to preach to individuals, he needs to understand what it is in the thinking of every individual that paganism of every kind-whether it is Marxism, or Islam, or Buddhism, or the polytheistic cults of India-destroys. American missionaries often find themselves in a situation where they can't correctly evaluate the thinking, the values, the incentives, and the expectations of their local listeners. Most of the time American missionaries go to a foreign nation with the conviction that local people are just like Americans in everything they think and value and expect, except that they "don't know about Jesus." So the solution is just to tell them about Jesus, and make them make a profession of faith, and condition them to attend church regularly, every Sunday morning, and preferably Wednesday night. In all other respects, they are expected to act like Americans, from their understanding of reality to their commitment to moral rules, to their commitment to work and grow and develop spiritually and economically in every area of their lives.
But it never works. And it never works mainly because there is a very marked difference between the mentality of an American and the mentality of a Frenchman or a German, for example. Or between an American and an Eastern European. And especially between an American and a Chinese or a Kenyan. The difference is mainly in the fact that different nations have different cultural histories. And since "culture is religion externalized,"1 different cultural history means different religious history.
Why Americans Can't See
It may be arguable that America is indeed a Christian nation today. I would say it still is: not necessarily in its laws and its governmental structure and practices, but certainly in the overall worldview background, inherited from the Reformation. In this, the United States as a nation has something that other nations don't: a very distinct religious-and therefore cultural-legacy which is based on the Reformed interpretation of the Bible. It is in everything Americans do and think and speak. Of course, it is mixed with pagan ideas-and that has been the case for most of the church throughout the centuries.
But America is unique with its very special legacy, and that uniqueness is very often the obstacle preventing American missionaries from understanding what has been destroyed in the thought of their local listeners by the pagan religious background of their local culture. Their local listeners are not Americans, and much more needs to be repaired in their worldview before they fully understand what the missionary is talking about, and before they are able to apply it in practice in their lives and culture.
American missionaries seldom think in terms of world-and-life view, they seldom think in terms of ideas have consequences, and, sadly enough, they seldom think in terms of faith has consequences. Cultural practices are taken for granted, as divorced from cultural worldviews, and therefore an American missionary seldom stops to consider that a thorough reconstruction of worldview is needed in his listeners, one that will lay the ax at the root of their belief system and help heal the wounds caused by that belief system. A pagan belief system is never culturally neutral or harmless; it always brings with itself destruction in the very thinking and the very perceptions of its victims.
Why Pagans Can't See
The most important destruction a pagan religion brings to a culture's worldview is the destruction of the concept of a unified reality, and with it, the destruction of the concept of the possibility of knowledge.
It is seldom realized by both modern Christians and non-Christians that the one unique view Christianity brought to the world was the idea of a unified reality that was also comprehensible and knowable to man. By nature, most pagan religions and ideologies believe in a fragmented reality, that is, reality which is not interconnected, and there is no set of unique principles that control reality from one end of the universe to the other, from the big galaxies to the smallest atoms, from the individual heart to the government of a nation, from the personal will of a man to the scientific and economic efforts and enterprise of collective human groups. In non-Christian thinking, the world is broken into separate spheres, and different principles control the different spheres. The connections between those spheres or areas are largely mystical and unsearchable; in fact, they are specifically declared non-existent in many cases, and therefore making such connections is almost a heresy for the pagan mind.
The first and obvious example of such belief in fragmented reality, of course, was the polytheism of the ancients against which the Shema Israel and the First Commandment warned:
Hear, O Israel! The LORD is
our God, the LORD is one!
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. (Exod. 20:2-3 ESV)
The main issue, of course, in the First Commandment and the Shema was worship: only one God, the Maker of heaven and earth, was to be worshipped. But faith and worship are not separated from one's view of reality; to the contrary, it is faith and worship that define one's view of reality. So when a person or a culture adopt a faith in multiple deities or in multiple spirits and nature forces which compete against each other, that person or culture by necessity develops a fragmented view of reality which rejects the idea of a unified set of principles governing all reality. How polytheism affects one's view of reality can be seen in 1 Kings 20:26-30 where the Arameans believed that Jehovah was only God of the mountains but not of the valleys; therefore, a battle against the people of Jehovah would be easily won in the valley rather than in the mountain. The apostates among the people of Israel built altars in high places, believing, apparently, that certain places or aspects of reality are more saturated with the presence of divinity than others. Fustel de Coulanges demonstrates that for the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Hindus, polytheism meant not simply worship of many gods, but also that all these gods had their own designated, well-defined realms where only they accepted worship, and where they could exercise their divinity. In fact, the different gods had such limited jurisdictions that they couldn't even accept worship from humans who did not belong to those jurisdictions.2 Faith in one God by necessity led to belief in a unified reality; the abandonment of that faith led to the destruction of that belief.
A more advanced form of the philosophical notion of fragmented reality was the dualism found in the ancient world mainly in the teachings of Zoroastrianism, but later developed in different religious and philosophical forms by the Gnostic heresies, and later by Kant, Nietzsche, Marx, Engels, etc. The "dialectics" of our modern philosophy is an attempt to build a unified philosophy on the basis of what is in fact a fragmented worldview where two worlds-of mind and of matter-operate on entirely different and sometimes even opposed principles. The result is the same when it comes to understanding reality: reality is broken into different spheres, and each sphere has its own principles of operation. There isn't one God ruling over all, and therefore there isn't one ruling principle over all.
Such a view of fragmented reality is natural to paganism but it has also crept into the church and its theology in many ways, ever since the early church. In our modern world it has found expression in the different humanistic doctrines that are thriving in many churches today. The best examples are dispensationalism which fragments history into different economies of God's work on earth; and the two-kingdoms theology which fragments the civilization into two spheres-of grace and of nature-which operate under different principles and therefore different laws. Neo-orthodoxy and existentialism have also worked to destroy the concept of unified reality in theology, and thus reduce Christianity to a basically pagan religion dressed in a theologically correct robe.
One God, One Reality
The philosophical consequences of this view are that the world is unknowable and incomprehensible to man. If there isn't one operational principle that rules over all, then there can be no knowledge of the world that can be reliable enough for man to be able to know anything with certainty. If the world is broken into insulated areas with their own sets of operational principles, then man is left without a way to know anything that can help him make decisions for his life and for the life of his society.
The ethical and cultural consequences of such a view are that there is no reason to postulate one unified law, one unified ethical system that governs man and his society, and all men and all societies. Under such a view, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to make any connections whatsoever, and especially connections between faith and law, or between worship and practical ethics.
Very often what new converts do in the church is not connected in any meaningful way to what they did outside the church. Their new faith in God and Christ does not fundamentally change their understanding of the world: it is still focused on themselves rather than on Christ. Especially in cultures that are economically destitute, God exists for the sole reason to provide them with a living, and that according to their old habits and patterns and ways to make a living. He is not the Lord; He is just a better insurance agent to assure the success of their own ways. Such is often their "testimony": God is always there for me. And the center and the focus of that testimony is for me. In more advanced cultures, God exists for the sole reason to support whatever government programs there are for redistribution of wealth. In a universe that is fragmented and has no unifying principle to govern it, the only factor that matters is the closest one to man: himself and his needs and desires.
As R. J. Rushdoony pointed out when discussing the subjectivism (fragmented reality) of the modern mind, "Life, order, meaning, and objective [unified-B.M.] reality were being withdrawn from the world outside of man. The only truly knowable world was in the confines of man's mind."3 Rushdoony aptly titled his study of that particular aspect of modern humanism, The Death of Meaning, revealing the main truth of all fragmented reality: it destroys every meaning, of life, of language, of existence, or ethics. The conclusion of his study is that such a mentality produces a "world of nothingness."
And that "nothingness" is what a modern missionary has to understand, theologically and covenantally, and to deal with in his preaching, before he can successfully instruct his listeners in the gospel.
Contrary to accepted opinion, Reformed missionaries abroad are just as guilty of ignorance concerning this problem; and they are just as guilty of actively perpetuating the problem by presenting to their listeners a truncated, incomplete gospel. The Reformed doctrines are today presented not in their fullness of what Bucer called "the Christianization of all of life," they are presented as merely the "doctrines of grace."
God's grace is, without any doubt, an integral part of the doctrines of the Reformation, but it is hardly the central aspect which defines them. To focus on grace as the defining characteristic of the Reformation is like defining a tasty dinner by the function and the movements of the utensils at the table: "A dinner is a function of forks." Forks are only an instrument, just as grace is only an instrument. The meal is the substance of the dinner; and the substance of the gospel is not that man receives grace but that the Kingdom of God has been established, and that everything is being made subject to Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-28). Preaching only God's grace without His Kingdom only adds to the confusion and the destruction caused by the humanist philosophies and religions. It is still focused on man and his needs-specifically his need of salvation- not on the sovereignty of God. Reality is still fragmented, except that God is simply invited to add His humble effort to produce just a little bit of coherence in saving His people from the chaos and confusion of history.
The result of such preaching is that their listeners look at the Christian God in just the same way they look at any other god they have, be it personal deities, or the state, or the lottery. The world operates under different cosmological and ethical principles for its different aspects, and it is considered naïve among many Christians to expect that the same ethical principle governing, for example, the upbringing of children will continue to operate in governing a nation, or in starting a business and engaging in commerce. Different laws, and different gods, for the different realms of reality. When you hear about missions which have died shortly after their American founders went back home (many more than the success stories we hear about every now and then), you can safely bet the missionary did nothing to change their view of reality.
The solution to this problem is to start a mission not based on attracting people to Christ, but on uncompromisingly proclaiming the sovereignty of God, and the Kingdom of Christ as the new reality in which the whole world, including the unbelievers and their cultures, operates. This will take a comprehensive covenantal understanding of what the Bible says about the world, and a covenantal understanding of the fragmented reality that a pagan culture teaches its subjects. A focus on "love," "grace," "provision," "salvation," will not only be misguided but also dangerous to the mission. Only a focus on making all things subject to Christ, in everything, from the soul of man to his culture and society, will make a missionary a true missionary. As long as our missionaries continue reinforcing the fragmented reality of pagan thinking, our foreign missions will be spinning their wheels, producing very little of value, wasting God's money.
So the next time you have to decide whether to support a missionary or not, ask yourself: Is that missionary opposing the fragmented reality of the pagan worldview on that culture, or is he enhancing it by his preaching? Is his focus on the Kingdom of God and the sovereignty of God or on the benefits His listeners will get from the gospel, whether salvation, grace, healing, peace of mind, or temporal successes? Is he preaching God as the sovereign Lord of their culture, in whom all reality is focused, or is he leaving his listeners to trust other gods as well, whether the state, or luck, or science, or their cultural habits?
The answers to those questions will determine whether your money was allocated wisely, for the glory of God, or not.
2. Fustel des Coulanges, The Ancient City, Book I, Chapter 4. See http://socserv.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/fustel/AncientCity.pdf.
3. R. J. Rushdoony, The Death of Meaning (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2002), 18.