The Table Podcast

Respectfully Engaging World Religions

In this episode, Drs. Darrell L. Bock and Timothy C. Tennent discuss respectfully engaging world religion.

Respectfully Engaging World Religions
  1. Respectfully Engaging Atheism
  2. Respectfully Engaging Sikhism
  3. Respectfully Engaging Shintoism
  4. Respectfully Engaging Animism
  5. Respectfully Engaging Judaism
  6. Respectfully Engaging Hinduism
  7. Respectfully Engaging the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  8. Respectfully Engaging Islam
  9. Respectfully Engaging Jainism
  10. Respectfully Engaging Buddhism
  11. Respectfully Engaging Scientology
  12. Respectfully Engaging World Religions
Timecodes
00:15
The need to understand world religions
07:42
How should Christians engage world religions?
12:09
Building bridges between Christianity and world religions
18:08
Conversing with followers of world religions
23:51
Understanding the religious experiences of others
29:32
Understanding the practical context of world religions
36:59
Thinking about God’s revelation and world religions
43:25
Challenges with engaging world religions
Transcript
Darrell Bock
Welcome to The Table where we discuss issues of God and culture. I’m Darrell Bock, Executive Director for Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary. And we are in our world religions discussion and our expert today is Dr. Timothy Tennent who is President of Asbury Seminary. And you must teach in a department there as well, is that right?
Timothy Tennent
I do. I’m a professor of World Christianity in the East Stanley Jones School of Missions there, as well. I teach one class a semester.
Darrell Bock
I know how that works, yes. Welcome to our gig, right? And we’re gonna discuss engaging religions, engaging different religions and talk about how to do this well. It’s a theme of the series that we’ve had as we’ve gone kind of one world religion at a time. But Timothy is here talking on campus today on a conference that is about world religions, and he’s our keynote speaker so we thought we’d bring him in and let him interact and help us think through this as well. So first question is how did you get into this gig? I mean, what caused you to focus on world religions as part of your life’s work?
Timothy Tennent
A number of things. Number one, Darrell, I grew up in a Jewish community in Atlanta, Georgia, and I was the only Gentile in my community. So I grew up being looked at as a religious other, so it always fascinated me. But then I had the experience of going to India to teach as a pastor. I had a MDiv degree and was doing some teaching in India. And I was met with so many profound questions and issues that I had never thought. I had a good degree from Gordon Conwell, been well trained but I just kept meeting questions that I had never thought about. And it really compelled me to do more work.
Darrell Bock
Where in India were you?
Timothy Tennent
In north India.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, I’ve only been to the south so I’ve heard it’s very different.
Timothy Tennent
It’s a different country.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. Interesting. It strikes me, and we’ve talked about this, that this is a hole somewhat in seminary curricula just because of everything else the seminary is trying to do oftentimes. And yet, it’s become more important as, I mean, not only is the world more tightly connected but even our own country has become more diverse. And so the likelihood of people, in fact it’s the premise of our entire series, is the likelihood of your having neighbors whose religious background is very different than anything you’re familiar with has become much more common.
Timothy Tennent
Absolutely. I think all of us, I mean not just Dallas but Asbury and all other seminaries are transitioning to a post-Christendom curriculum, how we think about things. And we’ve inherited a Christendom-framed curriculum, so my grandmother would never have met a Buddhist in her life so that was the consumption. And now our kids are going to school with people from all over the world, and the church has to learn how to adapt to that. And not to mention the global world dynamics, especially with Islam, I mean Christians have to be the best at interacting with the political dimensions of all of this, as well. And that involves an informed populous, and we don’t have that yet.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, I like to say the world is getting bigger and smaller simultaneously because we have more people on the one hand but we’re also more tightly connected on the other. And this is true of our children. I actually think one of the things we’re seeing in the difference between the older generation and the younger generation is a generation that has grown up with this global reality as a part of their lives in a way that was only in a distant way I think true for at least my generation. I won’t necessarily lump you in together with me. And I think that’s important to realize.
Timothy Tennent
And also, it’s not only geographical proximity, which I think is an assumption to your point, but it’s also the social networks. There are more Indians on Facebook than Americans, for example. And the global connection people that are through social media is dramatic; it is dramatic. And it creates new co-alliances, new coalitions, new conversation pieces, and those are connections that our previous generation couldn’t have even imagined.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, and I have in mind just the nature of news and where it comes from and the exposure of what you see on television, what people have within their grasp, etcetera, and it’s this dance between that’s foreign on the one hand and yet it’s in my world on the other. And so that kind of hybrid combination, if I can say it that way, is something everyone has to adjust to. And the church has tended to be culturally nearsighted, I think, in how it has viewed that and in some ways for understandable reasons. But in terms of being able to actually engage with someone who’s coming from a completely different place culturally, religiously, etcetera, it means developing a level of sensitivity that you didn’t necessarily have to develop in previous generations.
Timothy Tennent
Yeah, I think the church for many years had a sensitivity toward that in preparing the missionary community, and a lot of seminaries invested, as yours have too, a lot of resources in preparing people to be a missionary but they never really thought about their main crop of MDiv students, for example, going out as pastors in Dallas, I mean all over the country. But that’s a missiological challenge and therefore requires the same kind of skills, new language, new cultural learning that you learn – that was assumed of course you need that if you go to India, but now you need it to go to Dallas.
Darrell Bock
Exactly. In fact, the church that I’m a part of and have been a part of since I was a student here is located in a suburb of Dallas, Richardson, and we are literally one mile away from the major mosque in the region, which was not the case when I was a student. And so with that, all the demographic shift of the neighborhood, etcetera, so it’s forced us to think through how do we get to know our neighbors. So we actually have developed a program out of the church that meets regularly with the Imam at the mosque. We actually bring people together for dinner on occasion just so they can get to know each other and get to know the particular style of faith, if I can say it that way, that exists with Muslims here in the north Texas area that may not be what they’re seeing, in fact it isn’t what they’re seeing, on television. So just as a way of familiarizing people in our church with who their neighbors actually are. And the strategies that are required for that – what’s been required of our pastor in that church is a whole level of engagement that really he barely got to touch on when he was in seminary.
Timothy Tennent
So true. Yeah, so true.
Darrell Bock
So the challenge is, you know, how do you engage? And the way we’ve built both the conference that of course you’re keynoting for and the way we’ve built these podcasts is to kind of ask three questions. “What’s this faith about?” Whichever faith we’re talking about. “What causes people to adhere to it?” “What’s attractive in what’s in this religion that causes people to be drawn to it.” And then, “How does the Gospel speak into that attraction?” Which is a little different than the way religions used to be handled or often are handled. Not that this is wrong but it’s just a different way to do it, which is simply well how does this religion line up against the Bible. So tell us some of the things you’re trying to highlight for people as they think about engaging in this new environment.
Timothy Tennent
Well, yeah. I think theologically we acknowledge that we’re all one in Adam. There’s a common humanity in Adam and we’re fallen creatures in the whole human race. And that creates actually a certain commonality in how religions are dealing with and they may deal with differently, or wrongly, but they’re still trying to respond to some basic core human issues. So there’s a lot of religious things we try to connect with, but there’s also cultural things. I mean if you show up at the city hall to complain about pornographic distribution in your local stores, you’re dismissed as a religious fanatic. But if you show up there as a Christian pastor with a Muslim Imam with you who had the same concerns, they will receive you because they can’t imagine a pastor and a Imam coming together about anything.

And so it becomes almost newsworthy. It actually would be reported to the news if you did it because it’s like that’s a newsworthy thing because people are hungry for people to get along, you know, in today’s context. So I think that we’re exploring in today’s conference some avenues, for example, in true pure-land Buddhism, where they have a deep sense that their only hope of salvation is through grace and through faith. And that’s such an important conversation. It’s a common conversation they can have, and it’s a helpful one to explore things. And we’re also looking at, as I said, you know, we often think about how the Bible interacts with other literature, and most people do not realize that the Bible does appear in the literature of other religions and how it interacts with that. And so especially with the Quran this is a factor, so we’re looking at okay, how do we respond when our text appear in their literature. Or if you are interacting with people and they want to look at the Quran or look at the Bible. You know, should Christians study the Quran? Should they learn the Quran? Is it helpful to do that? Those are really, really important questions.

And I think it’s really helpful, I mean even a practical message. If you give people a copy of the Gospel of John and they say well have you read the Quran, you say no, why should they take it? You say yeah, I’ve read the Quran but you should read this. And the idea of going to Surah three, for example, where it says that Jesus healed the eyes of the blind and healed the leper and then saying would you like to see where Jesus did that. There’s not a Muslim who has ever said to me “no” because their own Quran gives witness to it. So the next you know you’ve gone from the Quran to the Bible. So to me, these connections are actually helpful and open. I’ve had conversations in mosques before about the Bible with Muslims. I actually did a Q&A with Muslims about the Bible in a mosque in Boston, and it was just so interesting. And we had a Q&A afterwards, and students were watching and one of the students asked the question to the Muslim do you believe in grace. And so his answer just caught a roar from the students. He said, “Absolutely. Every Muslim believes in grace. We just believe you have to earn it.”

Timothy Tennent
The students laughed. But the point is that Muslims do believe in grace but they understand how it comes to you differently, and so it opened this amazing opportunity. How do they understand how someone can earn the grace of God, but from our point of view it’s impossible?
Darrell Bock
Right. Which raises the whole issue of terminology sometimes that people are using the same word but in very different ways and with very different sub-understandings. You alluded to something I want to develop a little bit ’cause I had heard – I remember hearing this when I first became a Christian and going to apologetics seminars where the difference between Christianity and every other religion is salvation is by grace and that’s only true in Christianity. And what I’m hearing you say is that there is the presence of grace in many of these world religions. It may not be framed exactly as Christianity frames it but there is that presence there, and that’s actually one of the potential bridges in to some of these discussions.
Timothy Tennent
Absolutely. I think it’s true that Buddhism at its founding core and Islam at its founding core, and to a lesser degree but somewhat true with Hinduism, have a kind of a works orientation there. But what happens is groups within those religions came up upon the wall of that and the impossibility of that. And so obviously with Shinran especially and Mahayana Buddhism, with the true pure-land Buddhism, they developed a doctrine absolutely you cannot save yourself, you have no hope, you must be saved only through grace through faith, and that’s a very developed doctrine. And you also get this in Islam and Hinduism and other pockets of that that see their need for that and it’s expressed in various ways. So grace is a conversation piece that Christians can have with other religions.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, I have found another bridge that is similar tone and direction is the whole area of humility before God, that there is a recognition of, now in the East this is a little more difficult, but in certain other places there’s this recognition of God is so much greater than I am and that there needs to be an element of humility in how we respond to God, that there is a humbling that life delivers to you, if I can say it that way, that opens doors and bridges for conversation.
Timothy Tennent
So true, so true. And the way that Christians speak to Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus, the posture and your demeanor is so important in the conversation, because like everything else, you can’t just simply go as a truth deliverer, even though we believe in revelation. We believe God has self-disclosed himself in the Word of God, but we also recognize that the Gospel has to be encountered in a contextual point. And I tell people that even the most basic Christian statement “Jesus is Lord,” as like the most basic three-word statement, is a contextual statement because it comes out of somebody’s white face or African face or Indian face. It’s spoken in a particular language. It’s contextualized, and so people hear it within those contexts. And so it’s so important for us to work through that and to – no one will talk to an American or we won’t to a Muslim without certain presuppositions and ideas that flow into that conversation have to be wrestled with and talked about.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. And I find that one of the things we have done and we’re doing in this series is to talk about how different some of these orientations are, because if you’re in certain eastern contexts where there is no concept of a creator God for example and the idea of an accountability to this creator God or anything like that, you’re almost, for lack of a better description, thinking Christianly in a pre-evangelism stage because even your first sentence needs development in order to even bring up the topics of what it is the Scripture is talking about.
Timothy Tennent
Yeah, the way I describe that same point is when you’re a Christian you think about revelation from Genesis 1:1 until Revelation. And so you look at people within the span of that because that’s your frame, so it’s hard to imagine a people group or religious group that’s actually pre-Genesis 1:1. So Hindus are often struggling with things like, “Is there a god?” “Is there not a god?” “Did he create the world?” They have various creation myths; others say “no.” And so in some ways Genesis 1:1 is already saying something they’re still debating, and it’s hard to work in that environment where Christians have to adapt to that because we go in assuming. And of course, Buddhists being non-theistic at all is a huge challenge because most people assume, they look in temples they must be polytheistic and of course they’re not. And so those are big things. With Islam you have more parallels in some ways because of an Abrahamic common core there.

But with Hindus and Buddhists you definitely have to realize you’re in a different conceptual universe and their problems are different. I did a survey of Hindu leaders in different villages over a two-year period, and I asked them their own questions and perceptions of Christianity. And they were published in this little book, Your Questions, Our Answers. And what was amazing was that we were shocked by the perceptions they had about Christianity that we didn’t think they would have. And the real troubling thing was the top questions that were asked hundreds of times in villages across India were not actually addressed in our curriculum in north India. We had transported a western curriculum and we did a pretty good job learning Bible theology, church history, but we weren’t actually addressing questions that the average Hindu had.

So it shows that’s a big part of where we have to go is learning to think about education and ministry from the perspective of the unbeliever rather than from the perspective of the believer where we already have our conversation going on. And so that jump to look at the world and to look at the Gospel from another perspective and then address those questions is a really great missiological challenge that I think all seminaries are wrestling with.

Darrell Bock
And puts a huge challenge on how we listen to people in order to get – my first rule of engagement is first thing you need to do is get a spiritual GPS on someone and just sit and listen, let them tell their story. Turn off your heresy meter, you know. Just sit and listen and hear where they’re coming from, what drives them, what their spiritual interests are, where their spiritual resources are found, all those kinds of core questions so you just get a map about where they’re coming from. And then through those things you begin to figure out where the bridge is, where we can begin to have a real conversation, ’cause I think a lot of times we go in ready to tell. In fact, when someone’s telling us their story, our brain is going, “All right. What’s the response to that?” Where’s the retort to that?”
Timothy Tennent
Right.
Darrell Bock
And in the process, we’ve actually shut off not just engaging with the person. We’ve shut off getting to know the person and cut ourselves off from what really could be a mutually-enriching conversation. And I see that as one of the great challenges of even how we teach our students about tone and about engagement.
Timothy Tennent
And I think Hindus already have a predisposition to be that way in talking to you, and it’s less than other groups so we can learn from that. I also think it’s important to have the honesty about where we have both common ground and boundaries. I think sometimes Christians think that the only purpose of the dialogue is to discover common ground, and of course that really is important. But it’s also important to have the honest admission that Christianity really is different on really key points. I mean one of the famous lines with the early ______ of Islam is when it went across to the Abyssinia, and the person drew a line in the sand and said, “The difference between your religion and ours, Christianity and Islam, is no wider than this line in this sand.” And so that was quoted to me by a Muslim in a dialogue one time out in Portland, Oregon. And he said to me – these were his exact words, “I really think there’s not that much difference between Christianity and Islam. There’s just so much we agree with. If you would just give up the deity of Christ and the Trinity, we could get along fine.”
Timothy Tennent
That’s the whole point, there are some real differences, and it’s okay to talk about that and say, “These are real deep differences even though there are a number of things where we really do have common ground on.”
Darrell Bock
Yeah, when you’re talking about Islam, it’s that and then the other ground, again thinking about where a Muslim might be coming from, the whole emphasis on submission, on the one hand, versus the emphasis on covenantal grace and the building of relationship and covenants. That dimension that’s a way of God relating to us and us relating to God that is not very prevalent and prominent in Islam, and yet it’s central to the way Christianity views interaction.
Timothy Tennent
Right.
Darrell Bock
And so, but those conversations can be engaged in as conversations, not necessarily debates. It isn’t the challenge will be there, it will be there, but there will be conversations. I like the way Paul handles himself in Acts 17. In fact, I actually preach this passage on a regular basis and say what do you do with an audience that doesn’t know Genesis from Malachi, they know squat about the Bible. Where do you start with someone like that? Well, he started with the creator God and the accountability that they have to the creator God. In the Greco-Roman world, the world of spirits and the idea that spirits were around that you had to negotiate with was a given 150 of your days and your year were religious holidays. And I tell people we ought to adopt that calendar, a day off every three days would be a nice thing.

But, so they had a starting point, but then he goes around and he says things to them that are what I call giving people pause. Have you thought about this? If you’re gonna box God in and think that he’s this size and he’s manageable and controllable and imageable, if I can coin a word. In spots he’s saying, “Have you thought about it this way?” And he’s challenging them but he’s challenging them by thinking about where they are starting from and in that process is opening up a future conversation which I suspect he probably had in the marketplace where he worked on a regular basis with those he was rubbing shoulders with.

Timothy Tennent
That’s so true. And that brings up a climatic case, and also I think with Cornelius, I think you find what I often call a double conversion, where Cornelius is down there. You have the conversion of Cornelius’ household, but Peter is also converted in another way because his own view of God was enlarged in many ways. And so I think we talked about the two categories of us understanding them more and them understanding us more. But the other dimension that amazes me is what you don’t expect is that talking to a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist actually opens up things where you end up understanding your own gospel better or you realizing something you had not seen in your own text before ’cause they themselves question things, oh I never thought of that. Or there are just so many things that have helped me grow as a Christian because of my interaction with my friends from other religions. It’s amazing.
Darrell Bock
You are introducing a thought that actually explains why we’re doing this series.
Timothy Tennent
Okay.
Darrell Bock
This series comes from a trip I took a couple years ago to Thailand. So, I was in Bangkok and in the midst of being in Bangkok we went up to another town. The name is now escaping me but it’s where all the missionary organizations in Thailand seem to be.
Timothy Tennent
Chang Mi, probably.
Darrell Bock
Yes, we were in Chang Mi. And my wife and I spent the day walking from temple to temple. And I found myself, because you’re so immersed in a context that’s so different than your own, I found myself watching people walk in and perform whatever religious rites they were performing. Of course, I had no context so I had no idea what is this about. I wondered what they’re thinking. Just going through the process of trying to understand and identify with what was going on. And I realized in the midst of that experience that I knew so little about the religious faith that this person was connected to, etcetera, and that my training had given me very little background for it. And even less an understanding about what the human dimension about what the worship meant and could mean, and I thought to myself, “If I, having taught in a seminary for 34 years at the time, is in this position, I can’t imagine what the position is of most students who don’t get to be on a trip like the one I’m now on.”

And I thought to myself, “Oh boy.” I felt like I had walked into a black hole. And so I came back and talked to the staff and said there are a whole series of religions about which most of us in the West who are Christians know so little about. And I don’t want to understand it from the standpoint of is it right or wrong; I just want to understand the kind of religious experience that the person is in the midst of having and think about it that way. And I found myself, because I have had conversations with people who are in different religious contexts where they automatically see the world so differently than the way I process it. Their template is so different than mine that I do find them asking questions that do reflect on my own faith and my own spiritual walk in a way that adds a dimension that in some cases I hadn’t thought about before.

Timothy Tennent
Yeah, so true. And in theology that’s called the etic and emic perspective of course. And it is so true that you could study a religion from an academic point of view and you could defend the dissertation on it but not necessarily understand the experience of someone who is in that and belongs to that. And I’ve also found that people who approach us are actually in the same boat, because we often forget there’s a lot of information on Christianity that’s kind of just out there, you know some false, some true, some misunderstandings, but it’s out there. And yet many of them actually have not ever met – my experience like that was in China and I had a class of students; I was there teaching English. And we had this thing called second classroom, and so we would have a regular class but they were always afraid about things being bugged. So we would go down to the park and they would talk freely and they’d call it the second classroom, so we’d take a bus down there. And so I learned a lot about their lives. But it was so interesting for them to try to understand what’s it like for a Christian to pray, for example, ’cause Muslims often think we’re prayerless ’cause we don’t pray publicly. So, there’s a lot of perceptions about our actual practice in our life, which is really enlightening.
Darrell Bock
Well, I’m gonna have a Sesame Street moment here. Define the two terms that we’re talking about, ’cause most people won’t know what that means.
Timothy Tennent
Right. It just means the insider perspective and the outside perspective. So one is about the experience of somebody religiously that is a practitioner, and one is those on the outside observing it. And so, C.S. Lewis makes the point about how well an anthropologist could actually identify a particular rain dance, so that’s category B in a certain chart, different kinds of rain dances in places like Malawi. But he has no idea what the person who is doing the dance is experiencing, and so that whole Paul Hebert and others, of course, have popularized the idea who brought anthropological insights into Christian discourse.
Darrell Bock
And so this is actually an important part of this conversation because you’re actually – you’re trying to help people. You can’t do this in entirety; there’s no way to do it without actually being in this faith, this other faith. But you’re trying to get people to think about the difference between looking at it from the outside versus thinking about what the experience is and the coherence that it attempts to have, those kinds of things, as you’re engaging, which then builds your ability to interact with what it is someone else is experiencing whose experience is very different than your own.
Timothy Tennent
That’s true, so true.
Darrell Bock
So, there’s another lingering thought that I had. You were talking earlier about Islam is easier to interact with because they allude to our Scripture. While you were talking about that, I’m thinking about well our situation with Judaism is really interesting because there we could be accused of using their Scripture and having come along to some degree later with so much of our Bible being their Bible and yet put together very differently.
Timothy Tennent
Mm-hmm. Yeah, it’s true. It really does raise the whole question of revelation and how we think about our text, ’cause we don’t seem to have a problem with Jude quoting the pseudepigrapha or Paul quoting Greek poets or us quoting the Old Testament. But it really does raise the question of how sacred texts interact with each other or even Matthew and Luke having a shared document that we don’t have access to, quell or whatever. Those are really interesting questions about how God’s revelation works within those contexts. And if John 3:16, it’s not, but were it to be quoted in somebody else’s sacred text, in what way does it relate to those texts. I often say that we often understand inspiration, authority, and revelation and canonicity as like a separate conversation or separate study in theology. And when you actually look at it in the context of real ministry, it’s connected to Christology. It’s connected to soteriology. It’s connected to ecclesiology. It’s connected to everything, right.
Darrell Bock
Yeah.
Timothy Tennent
And so therefore, we can’t talk about the fact that the Quran says thou shall not covet, that can’t be taken in the same way without the context of all that it’s connected to or even that Jesus healed the blind man. And so I think part of what it’s done for me is help me understand how Christianity can’t be cut into little pieces in the way that we often do it. It actually is a great massive metanarrative with many parts to it, and it comes with that full force.
Darrell Bock
Integrated whole.
Timothy Tennent
Integrated whole, yeah.
Darrell Bock
And if you don’t understand how the pieces relate to each other – and the other religions that are coming at us are coming at us to some degree as integrated wholes, although I think it’s important to understand, this is one of the things our doing this series has shown is, you can talk about Buddhism but then the next question is, “Which Buddhism?” Or you can talk about Islam and the next question is, “Which Islam?” And so just like you can talk about Christianity thinking about it popularly and you think about well, “What kind of Christianity are we talking about?” So yet another reason to sit and engage the person because you may have an impression about what Islam is that may or may not actually match up with the way this person practices their expression of Islam. You mix that in with all the folk elements in religions around the world and man, does that puzzle get messy.
Timothy Tennent
That’s so true, it’s so true. And historically, especially with Hinduism and Buddhism, but with Hinduism you have a lot of regional religions that over time get reified and actually get placed onto a philosophical foundation that itself happened over time. So in many times the experience of a Hindu, at least this is my experience in north India, the average Hindu who is in one of those subcategories you just mentioned, they actually may not be aware of how they fit. And so I don’t think that a person who’s doing ______ Buddha in China may actually not realize that they’re part of this Mahayana stream and there’s also the Theravada stream and any more than like a person that necessarily is a Baptist understands how that fits into the whole Eastern Orthodoxy, and they don’t even know of the Oriental Orthodox Church, or the Assyrian Orthodox Church, or Roman Catholic, whatever. They’re just Baptist doing their thing. It’s true all over the world.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, yeah. But that makes it a challenge for the person seeking to engage because they may have a book knowledge of what’s going on. In fact, I found myself doing this in the midst of these interviews on individual religions. We had someone in who’s an expert say on Buddhism or Shintoism, this is actually where this happened, where I’m going through and talking about – I’ve had no exposure to Shintoism at any point in my life, and so I’m going through what the books have told me about Shintoism, etcetera. And I’m listening to someone who lived in Japan for a very long time say, “Well that may be what the books say, but let me tell you what I experienced living in Japan with the people that I was neighbors with who had Shinto connections.” And so there’s this reconnection that almost needs to happen between what you hear about a faith and the actual engagement of dealing with a person who has a particular expression of that faith.
Timothy Tennent
Mm-hmm, that’s true. And all religions have the dimension of a philosophical or structural kind of conceptuality to it, and then there’s the folk practice of it. And I think we all recognize that in our own faith but certainly that is universally true, absolutely.
Darrell Bock
So, all of this is to say that the importance of listening and building that relationship and engaging in a way in which you are really trying to get a sense. You’re doing two locations at once. You’re trying to get a sense of where this person’s coming from spiritually, but you’re also trying to understand yourself in relationship to that person and where you are spiritually equipped or not equipped to address what it is that they’re talking about.
Timothy Tennent
So true, so true. And as people come to faith from those backgrounds, they bring a richness that we have not discovered. In my book I deal a lot with the issue of shame and not just guilt in terms of the Gospel. So ______ because of Asians and Africans have come to the faith and they see things that we’ve missed. Or Jonathan Edwards called it the antic expansion of Christ, the way that Christ as more people come to worship Christ around the world, they get greater insights into his true beauty and majesty. So to me, one of the gifts of this period we’re living in is that a lot of these people that we know, these friends from different backgrounds, when they come to faith, Indians, Chinese, Nigerians, etcetera, they bring so much to it and richness and insights that help us to appreciate the Gospel and see the blind spots, ’cause every culture has blind spots. And so that’s part of the great gift of global Christianity that we’re the first generation to experience the full breadth of global Christianity flowering and the benefits for the church are enormous.
Darrell Bock
Well, this shifts my attention a little bit to this question, which is, and I’m gonna overgeneralize but it will be for the sake of illustration. You know sometimes the idea is, well, Christians have received special revelation, we have “The Truth,” capital T both cases, “The” and “Truth.” And so the impression is that everything that goes on out there is somehow false. And it seems to me it’s a little more complicated than that.
Timothy Tennent
Right. So that really comes down to your view of revelation and whether or not – how we understand how God’s Word goes out into the world. In terms of Scriptural revelation of course that’s true, but God has not left himself without a witness in all kinds of contexts. And whether it’s called general revelation or prevenient grace, however you describe it, in many ways in which God shows himself. Paul of course talks about the nature and human conscience and internal and external witnesses. That obviously does affect religions in the world. And so I believe that we don’t have to say that we have to view everything as in darkness outside of Scripture and revelation, ’cause I think part of my understanding of the Gospel is that we read the Gospel in the presence of the risen Christ. And, therefore, as the risen Christ he is leading us to understand and listen to his work and how he goes before us wherever we go. So I never believe I show up in India alone, and I think that’s probably what helped me to work in north India. I walked into a village and they hadn’t ever heard the Gospel, I never believed I was the first one there because Christ always beats me there. He’s always there first. And he’s enlightening and showing us the way.

And so, in that sense, I think that we can learn and see God’s work preparing us for the Gospel. And it goes back to Clement. I mean Clement was the one that said all the time, “All truth is God’s truth, wherever it may be found.” That’s a patristic statement. Not all patristics agree with that, as you know. There was a definite reaction against that statement. But Justin Martyr, his doctrine of logos spermatikos, “the seed of the Word” in his apologies, this shows that from the very beginning the Church was asking that question. Could you requisition like John does the word logos from middle Platonism, requisition for the Gospel. Is that a one-off or is that prescriptive for us, is it just descriptive, what happens there only? Those are all rich conversation pieces that have been going on for a long time. And I think we think sometimes that we just started this conversation last Tuesday when actually the Church has been talking about these things, Gospel and culture, for centuries. It’s only a Christendom world that forgets the conversations.

Darrell Bock
Right. And I think what’s happened in part is because, if I can say it this way, the West lived in such a tight Judeo-Christian net for a long time that it basically was spending all its time talking to itself.
Timothy Tennent
Right.
Darrell Bock
Now what’s happened, of course, is that that net is mostly gone or there are leaks and holes in it, if it’s not gone entirely. And there are other conversations that are happening and you find yourself, you know, can Paul, again, I’m back to Acts 17. Paul comes to a key point in his speech and rather than citing a biblical verse, which he never does in that speech anywhere directly, although it’s loaded with biblical theology. He cites a Greek poet to make his point. And I challenge our students. I said, “How many points in the engagement that you have could you cite an idea out of the culture that would be biblically accurate but would make the point you’re trying to make biblically?”
Timothy Tennent
I know.
Darrell Bock
And sometimes that can be done in comparison or in contrast. And I think we don’t push our students enough to think through that kind of a question that way. If you think about the powerful literature that we deal with or the powerful movies that grab our culture and you ask yourself, “What is it that makes this attractive?” “Why does this movie resonate with so many people?” “Is there something at work here in terms of a value or something that we can talk about from a Christian point of view that will help open up a conversation with someone who otherwise might not darken the door of a church?” I think those are questions worth probing for us and for our students.
Timothy Tennent
Absolutely. And I think in light of Billy Graham’s passing, I think it’s important to think about how he exegeted what in his day was a massive theological point of how the Gospel is mediated to people through media. And for him to requisition the television and the radio the way he did was a fundamental change in how the Gospel had been passed on for centuries. But he understood that was cultural exegesis in his case. And the same way we are facing a challenge to do good cultural exegesis and how does our culture transmit information, how do they transmit values, how do they transmit relational dynamics? And all those things are really huge and Christians have often not listened well in that way.
Darrell Bock
And that can be highbrow or very simple. I tell my students, I say, “If you want to know what a culture is about, take a look at the commercials. Ask yourself, “Why is this, whatever it is that’s being sold or marketed – why is it being pitched in the way it’s being pitched? What’s at work here?” And that usually is a pretty good clue as to what’s going on in the society and what that value, particularly with the way many commercials now are built – the product is almost an afterthought at the very end of a commercial. There’s a feeling that’s being built around the product that is driving, and that’s sending all kinds of simultaneous messages that are built almost to address you without you having to engage your mind.
Timothy Tennent
Yeah, so true. I had a pastor that I’ve known for years, he’s now in his 90s, but he pastored the same church for his entire ministry. And the first 15 years of his ministry the church just grew and exploded, ’cause he was a thinker and he was great at doing apologetics, etcetera. But then the last 15 years in history the church went through significant decline, and he’d been the same pastor, vibrant person, loved the Lord, loved the Scriptures. He reflected a lot, “Why did this happen to my church.” And he said to me one time, “I grew up and I pastored an, ‘I Think Church,’ and at one point it went to an, ‘I Feel Church,’ and I didn’t know how to negotiate the change.” Because he was so used to, like Josh McDowell, I’m gonna give you the five reasons why you should read the Gospel. And at one point he realized that you know the famous statement about Evidence That Demands a Verdict, he said, “My first 15 years when I gave them evidence and said, ‘This demands a verdict.’ They’re like, ‘You’re right.’ They came to faith in big numbers.”

And he woke up one morning and realized, “I gave them the evidence but to them it didn’t demand a verdict.” And he said, “I never really knew what to do with that.” And that shows you, and I think also it helps us see that we as leaders that are training the next generation, we train people out of our experience and background. And they’re 22, 25 years old, they’re gonna be ministering 25 years from now, and so we can’t even imagine what they’re gonna face. That’s one of the challenges in this whole enterprise because we’re equipping people for a world that we do not yet know.

Darrell Bock
Right.
Timothy Tennent
And yet we see them, we see this.
Darrell Bock
This is actually parallel to a conversation I have quite often when I talk about this, and I say, “We, my generation, is used to having an outline point in which you have an argument and then you have the very logical move through it.” But I said, “My kids have experienced the processing of information more through a webpage than through reading through an argument. Who goes through a webpage and starts at the top, clicks the top thing and then goes through the page in order? No one does. It’s not built that way. It doesn’t function that way. It doesn’t process. It’s free floating.” And I said, “I’ve had to wrestle with thinking about how do I communicate to people who process information on the basis of association, if I can say it that way, rather than on the basis of a strict logical sequence?”
Timothy Tennent
Absolutely.
Darrell Bock
And I think engaging in religion is little different. I mean, you’re actually trying to read the map of someone who connects, who makes connections completely differently than you do. And in some cases, some terms mean something completely different than what you’re used to, and you’re in a process initially of discovery.
Timothy Tennent
Absolutely. And in missiology this is called cognitive mapping, and it is so true. People do in fact, it’s demonstrably true, people actually do think differently, and they process information differently. What you’re saying is absolutely true. And over time generations grow up with certain exposures and as a generation they think differently. So one of the challenges, and my example and your example would be saying that we learned to make our content the core, and the illustration was like, you know, putting a smiley face to warm it up or whatever.
Darrell Bock
It was a side bar.
Timothy Tennent
Right. And in India, often the metaphor is always the core, right, and around that you put your content. And so how you think about the way people think pictorially, for example, in pictures, which is so classically Eastern and is so different from the way people think in content ways.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. Well, this has been fascinating. And this whole last two minutes is its own conversation in many ways. But I think what we’ve tried to illustrate is when you engage in religion, the more you can listen and converse, the better off you’re gonna be in engaging other people.
Timothy Tennent
Yes. Amen. Yeah.
Darrell Bock
Well, thank you, Timothy, for coming in. We really appreciate you being a part of this, and we hope that you found this interesting and we hope you’ll join us again on The Table real soon.
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Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than forty books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
Timothy Tennent
Dr. Timothy C. Tennent has served as President of Asbury Seminary since July 2009. Prior to his coming to Asbury Theological Seminary, Dr. Tennent was the Professor of World Missions and Indian Studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary where he served since 1998. Ordained in the United Methodist Church in 1984, he has pastored churches in Georgia, and in several of the largest churches in New England. Since 1989, he has taught annually as an adjunct professor at the New Theological College in Dehra Dun, India. He holds degrees from Gordon-Conwell, Princeton Theological Seminary and the University of Edinburgh.
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