Relativism, Silver Bullets, and How to Kill Vampires

The following is an excerpt from an article I’ve been working on regarding missionary methodology.

“A wrong orientation toward missionary methods is one of the quiet cancers eating away at the health of the evangelical missions world. For the purposes of this article, we will distinguish between two errant camps demonstrating an incorrect orientation. These are the methodological relativists and the silver-bullet-true-believers. And sometimes missionaries jump from one camp to the other, depending on how hard a given term has been.

The relativists, for their part, have seized upon a real cross-cultural dynamic and have taken it to the extreme. They have found that certain principles can be applied in different places in wildly divergent, even contradictory forms, while still communicating that same principle or meaning. Hence the universal idea of respectful greetings means one kisses another man’s wife in France while not acknowledging the presence of another man’s wife in a country like Afghanistan. Radically different forms communicate the same meaning in different cultures, while other times the same forms can communicate radically different meanings from one place to another.

The relativists apply this idea across the board, believing that all or most forms and terms are ultimately relative, can be redeemed, and in the process filled with biblical meaning. This error is what Insider Movement advocates are flirting with as they advocate for Messianic Muslims, calling Mohammad a prophet, and the like. It is what one of the patron saints of missiology, Roland Allen, himself flirted with a hundred years ago as he wrote of finding “The Christ within Hinduism.” It is the error informing the Bible college missions major who floats replacing water baptism with an equivalent ceremony communicating burial and resurrection due to the negative reaction to water baptism in the Islamic world.

What this camp misses is that method always has a bearing on meaning, whether that bearing be small or large. This is true at least because methods and forms don’t emerge in a vacuum, but rather emerge in a historical and cultural time-slice with those stubborn clinging barnacles of previous and contemporary meaning. Nevertheless, the philosophical aspects to this way of thinking about the fluidity of forms and meaning are very attractive to intellectually-oriented cross-cultural workers who are frustrated by the slow growth of their work. This camp ends up being broader than scripture in the applications and methods of their work.

The camp of the silver-bullet-true believers falls into a different error. The true believers come to feel that there is only one faithful or effective method for a given context. They latch onto a method (often one proven more-or-less effective elsewhere) and vigorously seek to apply that method in their ministry. Sometimes these have been good methods that were developed in contextual conversation with a specific place and culture. But the true believer, whether the developer of that method or a proselyte, at some point decides it should go global.

Whether it’s oral bible-storying, T4T, CPM, DMM, Any3, 4 Fields, POP, the Camel Method, DBS, or myriad other methodologies, these practitioners can rival any cage-stage Calvinist in their devotion to their newfound creed. The practical plans and positive outcomes that many methods promise prove to be very attractive to workers who long to see the gospel spread quickly in their resistant context. Sometimes this camp is made up of those who are more pragmatically wired, but not always. Many members of this camp are committed to getting their methods from scripture. The problem is that they latch onto one portion of scripture, whether descriptive or prescriptive, and elevate it as the biblical model. They fail to balance it with the rest of the examples and commands of scripture. Unlike the relativists, the true believers end up being narrower than scripture in the applications and methods of their work.

What is to be done to remedy a missions world prone to relativism or silver bullets? Alas, many missionaries on the field are practicing their craft in ways that are broader or narrower than scripture would permit – and this is causing real damage. Instead, the remedy demands that missionaries have a clear understanding of biblical principles and a firm grip on the range of faithful applications of those principles.

To illustrate, let’s return to the vampire lore. Missionaries are like a group of villagers arguing about how to kill vampires in light of a spate of recent attacks. One group argues that yes, the old tomes teach that vampires can be killed by a silver knife, a stake, or a bullet… and yet, whatever is a metal weapon “in essence” should also be equally valid – at the end of the day metal is metal and weapons are weapons and silver shouldn’t have any greater effect than iron or steel. That silver stuff is probably just encrusted tradition, but now we are enlightened enough to truly grasp the metaphorical essence of what those texts were really getting at. So, let’s be sure to hit them with the big guns that were so good at taking out that human army from that other kingdom.

The other group of villagers argues that the earliest tomes deal mostly with the use of silver knives. Silver knives were used in the first generation that fought vampires and proved to be remarkably effective. To deviate from this original path is to risk too much and to fail to unleash the true promise of a vampire-slaying movement like was seen in the days of old. And after all, silver knives are much more reproducible than other options.

No doubt these villagers argue back and forth with case studies, journal publications, and moving personal anecdotes. What is needed to clear up this mess is a gnarled old village guard willing to step into the fray and proclaim through his missing teeth, “The idea is silver weapons, you fools!” Not broadly weapons “in essence”, and not just silver knives, but silver weapons. Make it too broad and you risk losing all effectiveness (and getting turned into a vampire yourself). Make it too narrow and you unnecessarily limit your effective options. After all, who wants to only have a silver knife when you could also have a revolver full of silver rounds in the chamber? These villagers need to recognize the key principle (silver) in the appropriate scope of its application (weapons that can pierce the heart).

Missionaries, like our vampire-besought villagers, should desire to be armed with the right kind of spiritual weapons and to be competent in and carrying as many of them as possible, skillfully applying them to particular situations.”

For more on this topic, see Seven Pitfalls and Seven Questions Toward Healthier Methodology.

Photo by Jay Rembert on Unsplash

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