I have got out of the habit of writing, and I need to get back into it. So for practice I’m going to write about something that should come easy to me.
A few years ago, I wrote a little program called SILE. (rhymes with “mile”). It’s a typesetter: it takes some words, and puts the words into lines, and puts the lines into pages, and puts the pages into a book. This is a more difficult task than you might think. Since then, SILE’s development has been the closest thing I have to a hobby. Some people go running; some take photographs or make music; I write typesetting software.Where SILE is up to
I’m always amazed when SILE works. I guess this is for a few reasons; first, I wrote it and so I know more intimately than anyone else what doesn’t or shouldn’t work yet. As a developer I spend all my time working on SILE’s failings, not celebrating its strengths. Second, it started life as a kind of toy project and so in my mind it’s still a bit of a toy, and so when it’s used to successfully produce something serious.
But looking at it more objectively I think it is as good, if not better in some areas, than most of the other solutions in the same field—in particular, the TeX family. TeX has a longer history and a larger community, and so a lot of third-party packages and time-saving solutions built on top of it, so in that sense it is still more robust and easier to use, but in terms of capabilities SILE offers the same functionality, but with many improvements. (In particular, the multilingual support which I’ll talk about in a minute.)
And recently things have got to the state where I have preferred using SILE to anything else. As an example, I’m publishing a commentary on a book of the Bible; the text goes through the book commenting on each verse. The convention for commentaries is to have the running headers mark the first and last verses treated on the spread, so that you can easily find the comments for the verse you’re interested in:
Here, “12:11” is the first verse treated on the left page, and “13:15” is the last verse treated on the right page. Normally I’d publish this sort of thing with TeX but I wasn’t sure how to correctly achieve those running heads. (Now I know: the answer is the titleps package, but there’s a lot of code there in that answer required to make it work.) I fiddled and fiddled, and in the end thought, “stuff it, I’ll do it in SILE”. SILE’s infonode package was designed for exactly this sort of thing, and it’s implemented explicitly in the bible class. Now sure, it could be because I know the SILE packages much better than the TeX packages, but it was more straightforward for me to get something done in SILE than in TeX, which was a nice surprise.
So SILE can (and does) typeset books quite nicely now. I still find that amazing.Recent development
The last release of SILE happened in June, but an awful lot of work has happened since then. Mostly this was conference-driven development, spurred on by my upcoming talk at the 2015 Granshan conference. Granshan is all about global design, and so I’ve been doing a lot of work to ensure that SILE can cope with some of the more complex writing systems around the world.
You can find all the details in my Granshan talk, but this has meant working on a variety of issues:
• Line breaking for non-Latin languages is interesting. Japanese, for example, is written without spaces between the words, and you can break a line after most—but not all—characters. SILE needs to know which break points are feasible and which aren’t. We do this in a few ways. For Japanese, SILE knows the rules and has a language-specific tokenizer. For language which don’t have a specific tokenizer, SILE tries to use the ICU library to pick out the line breaks; if the ICU library is not available on the system, then it uses its own (horribly incomplete) implementation of UAX #14.
• Line breaking for Indic and South Asian scripts is particularly interesting. In many south Asian scripts, you can break a line after any complete syllable, but working out when a syllable is complete requires doing morphological analysis on the text, at which point you are on your own. (“Such an algorithm is beyond the scope of the Unicode Standard.”) So SILE needs to know how to do the morphological analysis for those languages. I’d like to make this easier and create a domain-specific language for breaking (a little like ICU has for its break iterator data); the Javanese implementation has something like this, but it would be good to generalise it so it can be used in other languages too.
• Bidirectional text—mixing e.g. English and Arabic—is also interesting, because you need to reorder the text to make everything operate in the same direction. This gets particularly tricky over line breaks, because you then need to reorder again so that the text flows correctly from top to bottom. I think this basically works in SILE now; Behdad Esfahbod and Khaled Hosny have been extremely helpful in pointing me in the right direction, as it were.
• Speaking of directionality, Mongolian goes top to bottom, left to right—I think it’s the only language that does that. Most typesetting systems started off being designed for Latin scripts, and then tried to add support for this kind of “unusual” script later, with varying degrees of success. Nothing supports Mongolian, as evidenced by Toshi Omagari’s font design gymnastics. I knew that if SILE was going to become a truly global typesetting system, I needed to get rid of “ethnocentric” ideas like “X” and “Y” directions, and allow the user to choose the “writing direction” and the “page advance direction” and do everything in terms of them. Now to do Mongolian, you just tell SILE to typeset “TTB-LTR”, and everything just works.
• As well as preparing for Granshan, because I live in Japan I have wanted to make sure that SILE can produce professional-quality books in Japanese, including vertical (top-to-bottom) layout. Japanese has particular standards for how much space there can be on a line or between characters, how to mix Japanese and Latin texts and so on; it’s typographically very complex, which is why there’s a separate TeX implementation just for Japanese.
SILE’s Japanese support is nearly there. I had everything working, including vertical layout, except for ruby (furigana) support, but then all of the development I’ve been talking about above has caused a few code changes that have broken it all again—the vertical Japanese support was written before the great “writing direction/page advance direction” reshuffle, and so a few things have fallen out of that.
Speaking of which, another big thing we have been working on recently is regression testing, so we know when changes break things. That’s been very helpful (especially when I’ve been making changes to the line breaking algorithm, which was handed down by Don Knuth on tablets of stone) but it has shown us that the glyph metrics have turned out to be different on different systems: when the tests work perfectly on my laptop, they then fail on the Linux virtual machines provided by Travis, and vice versa. Behdad tracked that down to be an issue with FreeType, and we have plans to remove FreeType and just use Harfbuzz for everything. But right now, Harfbuzz doesn’t give us everything we need (in particular, vertical Japanese metrics), and the latest bleeding-edge Harfbuzz won’t be in distributions for a while yet, so that’s on the back burner.
I have also added something which is quite fun: there’s the beginnings of an OpenType font table parser within SILE. Partly I wanted this to report the font versions in use, to track down these metric discrepancies between Travis and my development environment. (Some of them came from the fact that Travis grabbed the latest release of the Noto fonts, and my system was just using the last version that I had installed, and some metrics had changed between the two.) But another reason I wanted it in there was because of Granshan.
Granshan was a conference for type designers, and they had a very different set of use cases for SILE than other users—high-level concepts like “documents” and “paragraphs” were not so important; they wanted to focus on ligatures and how individual glyphs were represented. So I thought it would be fun to produce type proof sheets by reading the Opentype ligature tables and automatically displaying all the ligature and complex combination combinations within the font.
And then I realised that this was an extremely niche use case and I don’t actually need it myself, so it isn’t much of a priority to develop it. If anyone else wants to run with it, there’s code there to support it, but…Future development
So there have been a lot of good changes since the last release. I know I should probably release more often, but I don’t like doing a release when I know there are things which don’t work perfectly—and that’s a problem, because there’s always going to be things which don’t work perfectly.
I had a roadmap which set out where I wanted to go in terms of SILE development, but (as often happens) things have developed in quite different ways to what I expected. I imagined that we could get a lot more uptake of SILE by making e.g. a full DocBook stylesheet so that SILE can be used immediately as a DocBook processor. The problem with that is that I personally don’t really need to process DocBook, and I’m not very motivated to work on problems that I don’t have.
In terms of the bigger picture for SILE, I have the condition that the 1.0.0 release will be able to correctly and predictably typeset a Bible from USX source to PDF unsupervised. To get closer to that, I am now shifting my emphasis on development away from the “back end” stuff of languages and scripts that has occupied me since 0.9.2, to more higher level issues.
For instance, one big priority is to have a nice way to shift between single and multiple column frames, on the same page.
One of SILE’s purported features is the ability to dynamically put multiple text frames on the same page, but I am starting to have my doubts about how well that can work in practice. There are so many moving parts to the page already: for instance, you want to shrink the size of your content frame based on the amount of footnotes coming into the page. But then if you decide to finish with the current content frame and start again with another one, all your footnote calculations get screwed up and you get output like this. I am not sure what to do about this.
There’s an interesting bug with the two-column USX processor at the moment when it comes to footnotes. Actually there are a few different ways to deal with footnotes on multi-column Bible layouts, which is all kinds of fun. You can have a single footnote frame which stretches across the two columns and steals space from both of them—for this you normally want the footnotes to appear horizontally, not one after the other; you can have a single footnote frame sitting at the bottom of the right column and stealing space from it; you can even have footnotes in a gutter between the two columns. Eventually SILE should support all of these layouts, but here’s the bug at the moment: if you have footnotes on the left column, they get typeset after the left column is finished. Adding more footnotes makes the footnote frame bigger, stealing space from the textblock. Then you have footnotes in the right column; these get added to the footnote frame, but the left footnotes are already committed, which means that the right column’s footnotes appear above the left column’s ones. Oops!
There are also (still) some bugs with the grid layout that I haven’t managed to track down, and balancing columns, another thing you really need for Bible typesetting, is also a hard problem. These are the major challenges that are left at the functionality level; on top of that, I also need to get some typographically pleasing page layouts and write sets of macros that make a professional-looking book design. For the USX document class I’m currently using the processing instructions that come with UBS’s Paratext software, but actually I don’t think I like the look of them.
I think we are still a long way from 1.0.0, because the remaining issues are quite challenging, but I still find myself wondering at how far SILE has come…Subject tags: technologywhats-going-on
I’m not defending what mission orgs have done in the past, but I don’t think that if we had gone out into the Christian scene offering to have theological discussions on missiological topics we’d have gotten a lot of people wanting to engage… Neither “missions” nor “theological” are big buzz words. Try finding either one high up on publicity for major Christian events and conferences.
And then I had a thought which got too long for a Facebook comment.
Jonathan Ingleby makes a helpful distinction between “mission training” and “missiological training”; mission training, the more vocational side, focuses on the techniques of mission—what you need to do to be a missionary—whereas missiological training, the academic side, promotes reflection on the nature, motives and so on of mission. Right now, a lot of missiological training institutions are having a very hard time, whereas mission training institutions seem to be more or less weathering the storm. It shouldn’t be a surprise that pragmatic Evangelicals and go-getter millennials don’t want to spend a lot of time in ivory towers cogitating about mission, when they could be getting out there doing it.
But on a deeper level, Mr Anderson is right—we haven’t promoted theological reflection as part of our Christian culture, missions or otherwise. We can be quite shallow, but in another sense, why not? According to the original quote:
Tite Tiénou, missionary theologian and dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has deplored such a lack of exegetical foundation and theological sophistication in regard to the widely popular writings of Don Richardson.
We have essentially taken a vocational approach to ministry. Ministry is like plumbing: a plumber needs to know how to join pipes and bend pipes and stop leaks; they don’t need a grand theory of plumbing. Teach someone the techniques they need, the basics of how to put together a sermon, lead a church, lead someone to Christ, and they can get the job done. You can run a big church without really having to care about exegetical foundations and theological sophistication. And if you can be a success without it, why do we need a grand theory of mission or ministry? What is the point of teaching missiology?
I think the answer to that is that, while it’s important to learn techniques, it’s equally important to remember that the techniques don’t work.
What I mean by that is that, if we had a set of techniques for how to disciple a particular people group, we wouldn’t need missionaries; if discipleship and evangelism is a solved problem, if the church is doing just fine, then the missionaries can go somewhere else. We send missionaries to the places where we don’t have all the answers, where the standard techniques don’t work, where we haven’t managed to communicate the Gospel successfully. Or at least, in theory we do; I’m painfully aware that most missionaries are sent to places where the church is doing just fine.
In this day and age I don’t believe that the greatest need in mission is just manpower. What we need is people with the ability not just to transport but also transplant the Gospel into new situations. Missiology is necessary when techniques run out and we need people to produce new techniques, new discipleship methods, new ways of communicating. And for that we need creative thinkers steeped in the theory of mission. It’s not a very popular discipline right now, but it is a necessary one.Subject tags: theologymissiology
I’ve been thinking about this article a lot this week. I’ve seen a number of racist, sexist and homophobic opinions from people who would swear up and down they’re not racist, sexist or homophobic. As Daniel Ames says in the linked article, “They’re not lying, they’re just wrong.”
But this is where I think Crystal Moten misses the point. As as soon as you call out behaviour as racist, sexist or homophobic, the perpetrators will think that you are talking about someone else, never them, because nobody ever thinks those labels apply to them. We evaluate these terms against our subjective feelings, and we find that we are absolved.
How else can you understand a sentence like “We believe prejudice to be Biblically wrong, but the whole plan of God shows that races should not intermarry”? (To pick a surprisingly recent example.) The person who said that does not think of themselves as racist. They check: No, I don’t feel any personal animosity towards black people, therefore I’m not a racist. Anyway, it’s not my fault; I’m just repeating the clear teaching of Scripture.
So I think we need to talk not about racism or sexism or homophobia but instead about discrimination, about treating people differently, which is an objective measure and nothing to do with personal feelings. We can then at least have a conversation about whether that discrimination is warranted or not. But if we talk about racism or sexism or homophobia, that conversation can’t even take place.Subject tags: theologyevangelicalism
The Japanese media and Internet is all aflutter at the moment about something which has become known as the 神社油かけ事件 (“incident of throwing oil on temples and shrines.”) If you’re working in Japan, you need to know about this, because you will probably hear about it.
The facts are basically these: an arrest warrant has been issued for a 52 year old US-resident Japanese man on suspicion of damaging property. He has been accused of attacking cultural properties, in particular shrines and temples in Chiba and other areas, by pouring oil on them. He has apparently explained that, as a Christian, he was purifying those shrines and temples from the evil spirits that are enslaving Japan.
It’s hard to defend someone who’s basically been caught defacing cultural property, but the media have been as merciless and cruel as usual. Memories of Aum Shinrikyo are still strong; when religion hits the news, the vitriol gets turned up to 11. The man’s public ministry has been scoured for anything salacious, anything that could be twisted and reinterpreted to label him a fundamentalist or cultist. Because of this I’m in two minds about naming him—I wouldn’t want a mistake to lead to my name all over the Internet—but the vicious nature of the Japanese blogosphere means that that particular ship has well and truly sailed, and the best thing we can do is try to say some nice things about him instead. He has been named as Dr Masahide Kanayama, who heads up an outreach called International Marketplace Ministry.
As far as I can tell, IMM Japan seems to be a pretty normal, orthodox ministry, although perhaps a little bit of a one-man-band affair with not too much oversight and accountability. It’s connected with the Back To Jerusalem movement; people who have no idea what that means have apparently decided that it must be a fundamentalist apocalyptic cult similar to ISIS. (I did say that the Japanese media gets merciless about religion in the news.) The aim of IMM is to train, equip, and send Christians as missionaries in their workplaces throughout Japan and across the world. It’s exactly the sort of thing the Japanese Church ought to be doing. More power to them!
Dr Kanayama is also (pretty obviously) on the more Pentecostal side of things, so we can unfortunately look forward to a chorus of Japanese Evangelicals distancing themselves from him and the incident. And I can understand the temptation. The public image of Christianity is being dragged through the mud right now, and we don’t want to get dragged down there with it. We want to defend the faith, defend ourselves, and keep out of the fray, so it’s an easy way out to say to people “No, he’s not like us”.
But actually, he is. He’s just like us. We may not be so daft as to literally anoint places with oil but I’ve worked with teams and with missionaries who have gone to temples and shrines to pray for the same things, for the same reason, with the same beliefs. One of the articles that I read about the incident argued that this is basically what you get from a monotheistic religion—they don’t respect other gods. And it’s true; we don’t. Dr Kanayama’s attitude to the spiritual realm is fairly mainstream amongst Christians.
We do, I hope, want to see this country become spiritually purified and turned towards God. Yes, that is a deeply offensive concept in a highly pluralistic society like Japan, and that’s why people are going nuts about Dr Kanayama right now. Yes, we need to be very careful and respectful in how we express what we want to see, and yes, (needless to say) Dr Kanayama got that badly wrong. But the worst thing we could do is pretend that he’s some complete oddball, that we’re not like him and that this isn’t what we want to see. Because that is precisely how Japanese society applies pressure to us to water down our faith and make it acceptable to the mainstream—acceptable, and totally ineffective.Subject tags: theologyjapanmission
Have you ever attended a foot-washing ceremony? It’s one of those things that happens at Christian gatherings; it’s sometimes carried out by the leadership of a group, as an symbolic expression of their willingness to serve those that they lead. And it makes me really, really uncomfortable.
What makes me uncomfortable isn’t just that someone is fiddling with my feet. OK, I admit: that does make me a bit uncomfortable. My feet are not always in great condition and I don’t enjoy feeling obligated to bare them in front of others. In my case, and I’m sure in the case of others as well, an act of foot-washing serves more to evoke feelings of embarrassment and shame than blessing and service.
But that’s incidental; my real discomfort comes from what the act of foot-washing means, and what it has come to mean.
The first problem I have is that these foot-washing ceremonies can actually have very much the opposite effect to their overt intention. I think in many cases their job is not so much to represent servanthood as leadership. Foucault was right: power is everywhere.
To see what I mean, ask yourself the question: who is allowed to wash whose feet? Sometimes anyone can wash anyone else’s feet, which is great, but more often, the action of foot-washing will actually serve to reinforce a divide between leader and led. I’m not arguing here that there shouldn’t be a divide between leader and led, but I am arguing that this is absolutely not what Jesus was talking about when he commanded his disciples to wash each others’ feet in John 13. What he had in mind was the same mutuality as the command to “love one another”, which appears later in the same passage. So in a way we have taken a practice that Jesus initiated and turned it into its exact opposite.
The second problem I have is that the world has changed quite dramatically.
In Jesus’s day, people wore sandals, and the roads were dirty, dusty, and, well, animals passed by. By the time you got to someone’s house, your feet would be covered in poo. “Washing feet” would really mean cleaning off animal faeces and whatever other unpleasantness was picked up from the streets. It was, if you’ll pardon the pun, a crap job.
In that sense, my context of modern, industrialised Japan is about as far from the Biblical context as you can possibly get. There is strict sociological distinction between inside and outside space; different areas of physical space and different footwear have different levels of (ritual) cleanliness. Someone moves from the outside (wearing shoes) to inside (wearing slippers) to tatami-matted rooms (wearing just socks or bare feet). The upshot is that, compared to the Biblical Middle East, Japanese feet are—culturally speaking—clean.
And in most other countries too, even if we don’t have those cultural dynamics, let’s face it, our feet aren’t actually covered in mud and dust and poo any more. So what is the meaning of washing feet that are already clean? Something that originally was an act of service has now turned into something that is symbolic of an act of service—without actually being one!
It’s true that Jesus gave us an example to follow. We should do “just as I have done for you.” But as J Ramsey Michaels puts it in his commentary on John:
Just as there is no one way in which disciples “lay down their lives” for each other, so there is no one way in which they wash one another’s feet. Mutual love is the key, but this love may express itself in material help, deeds of kindness, forgiveness of wrongs committed, protection from persecution, even death in another’s place–all the things that God himself provides for his children.Subject tags: theologyleadership
“How can people be good without knowing God?” It’s a surprisingly common apologetic gambit, but I think it’s time that we put that canard to rest.
It sounds like a theological question, but I don’t think it is. If it were a theological question, it could be dealt with in theological terms: in fact, there’s an answer right there in the Bible. How can people be good without knowing God? “For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves. They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them.” Next question.
But it’s not a theological question. It’s a statement phrased as a question—I can’t think of a way that people can be good if they don’t know God—and that’s more of a statement about worldview than it is about theology. Specifically, it’s an admission of a failure to understand how non-Christians tick.
You won’t hear this question in places where Christians are a small minority. This is because in those places, Christians know enough non-Christians, meet them and interact with them on a daily basis, to know full well that non-Christians are capable of doing good without God. They work with them. They live with them. They marry them. They’re perfectly aware that non-Christians are not all horrendous evildoers who would be killing and raping if they knew they could get away with it. Here in Japan, let’s face it, the majority of people are nice, kind, considerate and honest. How can people be good without knowing God? Who cares—they are, so your argument is invalid.
So it’s really only in those situations where Christians have enough critical mass to form a self-contained echo chamber that such questions arise. People form their Christian communities, spend most of their time with Christian friends, eventually lose contact with the non-Christian worldview. At this point they fail to understand how people work, and so need to invent just-so stories to explain other people’s behavior from inside their own worldview.
In other words, what looks like an apologetic argument is actually the result of failing to interact evangelistically on a meaningful basis. Pretty ironic, huh?
And it’s not just about morality. There are a whole bunch of falsehoods that Christians tell each other about non-Christians.
One of the best sessions that I went to at a New Wine conference many years ago was run by an evangelist working within universities. I can’t remember who it was, because it was a long time ago now, but there are a lot of advantages to being an evangelist; you get to spend the majority of your time with non-Christians, who can often be more considerate and more pleasant to be around than many Christians can.
And because you spend the majority of time with non-Christians, you can’t so easy make sloppy assumptions about their worldview. The conference session ran through a few of the things that Christians think: that non-Christians are plagued by feelings of guilt, emptiness and incompleteness; that they are continually aware of their own sin and subconsciously seeking a solution to it; that they feel a “God-shaped hole” in their life; that if they appear to be happy, it’s only at a surface level in which they’ve managed to shut out their deeper feelings; and so on.
For any non-Christians reading, this is pretty common currency within the Evangelical world, because that’s what that worldview implies. But it’s clearly not true—and, you can argue, rather insulting too—and the evangelist patiently explained to us that it’s not true, and you are unlikely to make any headway in evangelism if you start with untrue assumptions about the feelings of the person you’re talking to. So these falsehoods may make us feel better about our own salvation, but they’re actively harmful when it comes to interacting with the rest of the world.
And yet, of course, it’s not just us. Any group which prefers its own company, preferences its own discourse and worldview over everyone else’s, and ends up only talking to itself about the rest of the world tends to make sloppy assumptions about how the rest of that world works. So if you ever hear a bunch of atheists complaining that all Christians just uncritically accept whatever they’re taught about their own personal Sky Fairy, you can say, yeah, I’ve seen that line of argument before.Subject tags: theologyevangelicalism
I’ve been wondering recently what it means to be a Christian—who gets to call themselves a Christian? Do certain people call themselves Christians when they aren’t? And is there a way to tell them apart, without falling into “no true Scotsman” territory? Today I came up with a solution, and it’s not neat or particularly encouraging, but it may be helpful.
It’s actually very easy to be a Christian. Not very much is required. You can make a deathbed conversion, declare your faith in Jesus, never do anything else again, and you’re a 100%, honest-to-goodness Christian. So in that sense being a Christian imposes no moral, ethical, social or political strictures on anyone. The Bible talks about it like this: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Or like this: “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Or like this: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”
That’s all you need to do. And that’s the scandal of Christianity, that it’s radically inclusive. Everyone is welcome. Bonhoeffer was wrong; there is such a thing as cheap grace. Being a Christian is easy.
Being a disciple, a follower of Jesus, though—now that’s a different story.
I don’t know if Jesus himself had this distinction in mind; maybe he expected everyone who believed in him to be 100% sold out on following him. After all, there wasn’t anyone called “Christian” while he was about. Maybe it’s a distinction that’s come about through Paul, filtered through the kind of “lifeboat rescue” view of salvation that NT Wright so carefully dismantles. But I think it’s a distinction worth making today.
Whereas the option of faith in Christ is open to everyone, Jesus was very clear that discipleship is a difficult calling for the few. He talks about it as being a narrow gate, which would be an odd thing to say if you expected everyone to fit through. He demands that those who want to be a disciple must “deny themselves and take up their cross daily”. That doesn’t sound like an easy thing. Bonhoeffer was right—when Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.
Jesus called some people “unfit for service in the kingdom of God”, simply because they put their family before serving him; others were whittled out because they put their money before serving him. Disciples can’t serve two masters. Disciples have to serve others, to humble themselves, to avoid defilement, to look after widows and orphans… the list goes on, and we could argue some of the details but it’s hopefully very clear that this is no longer wide open and scandalously inclusive. Being a disciple does impact how you live. Being a disciple, unlike being a Christian, very definitely has moral, ethical, social and political dimensions for your life. Being a disciple costs.
You can choose Christ and have an easy life, but by goodness you’re in for it if Christ chooses you.
We believe, we hope, we assume, that one leads necessarily to the other—that someone who converts to faith in Christ would go on to make the step from there to walking the narrow way of discipleship. But it isn’t necessarily the case.
I had lunch with a pastor of a Japanese church the other day, and he said that his congregation had asked him, in so many words, to stop preaching to them about Christian growth. Discipleship, they said, was not something that they saw the need for. They were saved, they went to church every Sunday, they paid their tithe—they were doing their bit, and anything else was his bit. Why was he trying to make his job into their job? And from my experience, I don’t think that kind of attitude is particularly unusual here, even though one does not often hear it expressed so baldly.
In other words, the Japanese church has a lot of Christians but very few disciples. Getting Japanese people over the hurdle of faith and into the Church has been such a major challenge that we have been quite happy to stop there, count our converts, and give thanks—not wanting to push them too hard along the costly path of discipleship. If we push them too much, they might leave the Church, and how can that be better? And then we wonder why the Japanese church doesn’t multiply; why it’s so hard to get lay people involved in ministry; and all that. Well, why should they? What incentive do they have?
Tyler Edwards argues that the same process is happening in the Western churches, as consumerist tendencies push us towards an easier, more convenient, less demanding gospel. But I don’t think this is a cultural phenomenon, in Japan or in the West. Christian leaders over the centuries have bemoaned a lack of spiritual commitment from the masses in the pews. A hundred years ago, C T Studd complained that
“We Christians of today are indeed a tepid crew. Had we but half the fire and enthusiasm of the Suffragettes in the past, we would have the world evangelized and Christ back among us in no time.”
And Jesus said the same thing about the church in Laodicea back in the first century. So the distinction between “Christian” and “disciple” is not a new thing; it’s not about culture, or about consumerism, or even about how missionaries and pastors have failed to engage with people. If anything, it’s about the 80-20 rule.
Or more to the point, it is about the scandal at the heart of Christianity, or at least of our understanding of it—that Christ is open to all, that anyone can be saved… but walking through the narrow gate is strictly an optional extra.Subject tags: theology