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Reactions to Van Rheenen, Love, and Missio Dei from the Bush

Author: Kyle Holton
Published: August 2010

MD 1

Article Type: Text Article

Reflecting from a Folk Muslim context in sub-Saharan Africa, and in response to articles written by Mark Love and Gailyn Van Rheenen, the author questions the value of trinitarian language, traditional definitions of syncretism, and Western hermeneutical assumptions in narrative theologies. A post-colonial theology of missio Dei could help us move beyond modern, power-structured forms of mission and cultivate open congregations gathered around work and life together, not homogeneous belief or culture.

Recently, a young man in my congregation woke up in the middle of the night only to see his wife walking out of their two bedroom mud house. He followed her out into the night air calling her name. No response. He took hold of her arm and she lurched away from him screaming. “Where are you going?” he asked. The deranged wife responded in gibberish. He only caught that she wanted to go out into the bush, alone. Only with the help of his neighbors was the husband able to force her physically back into the house, where she collapsed.

The following morning, I came to visit after hearing of the event from my neighbor. I found the husband attending to a quiet but at present calm woman with a vacant gaze. There was tangible worry and fear in the room. After all, this had all the signs of witchcraft, and the antagonist could have been a neighbor. We discussed what happened and the husband said he had found medicine. He showed me an old wine bottle that was full of water. At the bottom of the bottle, shreds of soaked paper slowly dissolved in the water. Of course, this was not just ordinary paper. On the paper were inscribed Arabic words of power. For a people who have merged and mingled the worlds of Animism and Islam, such a concoction is surely as effective as a glass of scotch after a hard day on Wall Street. By having her drink words of divine power, they planned to rid his wife of the curse within her mind. I also learned in the conversation that the wife’s family had a dream. In the dream, the one who was sending the curses had managed to enter the house, but if they moved the wife to her mother’s house, then the curse would not find her. That afternoon, they moved the wife to her mother’s. A week later, I found them both happy and sane. The curse had been lifted.

I vaguely remember studying David Bosch’s paradigms in undergraduate school.1 I recall preaching about God’s mission, looking to join God’s mission, and enjoying the mildly post-modern explorations of Stanley Grenz’s trinitarian communitarianism during my graduate studies.2 I must confess, however, to being post-missional and post-trinitarian. I suppose there is nothing new in such a statement. After all, the Western philosophical world seems to be in a competition over who can be more “post” than the other. But I am not a passionless pew-pusher. Neither am I a secular sociologist bitter about my past. I am what many would call a missionary in sub-Saharan Africa, though I might be inclined to call myself a post-missionary. I say all of this not to trump theory with experience, but to offer a perspective forged in reaction to my neighbor. In the following essay, I would like to reflect on the missio Dei from the place where I sit. I live and work among a Folk Muslim people who hoe a dying ground for subsistence and who are working to navigate the encroaching, unstoppable force of globalization. Organized around the theme of missio Dei, I will intersect my context with my reading of Love and Van Rheenen’s articles along the following sub-divisions: (1) colonialism and missio Dei, (2) narrative theology of missio Dei, (3) human syncretism and missio Dei, (4) trinitarian theology and missio Dei, and (5) missional church and missio Dei.

Colonialism and Missio Dei

Missio Dei in its plebeian sense is a concern of all human beings on the planet, regardless of religion. What is going on here? What is the point of my life? Is there divine intent on earth? A majority of religious revelations are an attempt to answer such questions and thereby explain God’s plan. From this perspective, “What is God’s mission” is a universal question that we have been asking for thousands of years. But in a more narrowly defined, theologically evangelical orientation, missio Dei is an interpretive strategy forged from a systematic reading of the diverse biblical writings. Consequently, it is (to use George Lindbeck’s words3) a second-order description of sacred texts. I would suggest that since missio Dei is a reflection from the Bible, we can find cultural aspects embedded within this theological construction. As a dominant Western key in missiology, missio Dei has a structural dualism that is expressed through word pairs such as: God/world, church/world, call/send, saved/unsaved, here/there, and so forth.

The dualistic nature of missio Dei cultivates colonialism. If the lost are always “out there,” then we will always set up the church and her members as imperialistic managers of God’s kingdom. I have had the gospel preached to me by an Imam. I was convicted, and my life was changed. I was deathly ill of cerebral malaria, and an Imam prayed for my recovery. I will return to how we can speak of the characters in missio Dei. But for now, let me at least argue that the dualistic tendency of us/them, church/world, and sent/receiver is unhealthy and born out of ignorance of many biblical stories. I am reminded of the conversation Jesus had with the Syro-phoenician woman in Mark 7. Jesus learned about the nature of the kingdom of God from this woman. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28).4 When we read a parable, or quote the narrative, the Spirit of God swells into dialogue instead of monologue. It is the encounter, the event, that opens up a space for the kingdom to grow within all participants. In this sense, we are not sent but simply asked to be open to the event of God’s kingdom when it pierces our reality. I am again reminded of Jesus’ beautiful simplification of religion: love God/love your neighbor (Matt 22:36-40). Living with mission is simply loving your neighbor and allowing love to open a space for all participants to witness to the kingdom among us. Believing in missio Dei is more about reception. I am not sent to my stricken friend and his wife in the name of God. Rather, my love calls me to their doorstep. Our common life opens the possibility of the kingdom to germinate again in that place. I have nothing to give to my friend in a religiously cognitive, doctrinarian sense. Rather, our relationship creates the space for all of us to receive from the Great Physician. This is God’s mission, not mine. I need it just as much as my neighbor.

One final thought that disrupts this colonial, linear sender/receiver dualism is the sense of being a witness. We often think of witnessing to people as a kind of mini-sermon. We formulate an info-packet that combines certain doctrinal concepts with our lived experience in order to draw others into similar beliefs and hopefully similar experiences. I am not against sharing our lives with each other—this is essential to healthy community life. But if it becomes the way in which we allow individuals to enter our community it becomes imperialistic. I have learned from my experience here in sub-Saharan Africa that witnessing to the kingdom of God is a kind of typological, public interpretive act, an event that again transforms all participants. I have seen the story of the Good Samaritan acted out in front of me among Muslims. The experience was again a kind of event that interrupted my life and brought me to my knees. As a witness, I am obliged to tell my fellow friends that this moment is like that moment long ago. What we just saw, what you just did, is like what Jesus taught us. The performance of God’s kingdom surprises us. My job is not to leave it in the dark but to identify what just happened as holy. God just walked by! The kingdom is at hand!

Narrative Theology of Missio Dei

I appreciate Gailyn Van Rheenen’s emphasis on narrative theology as it pertains to missio Dei.5 But it is not sufficiently committed. God’s mission is often put into the “narrative” of creation, fall (under which the entire history of Israel is usually subsumed), incarnation, the age of the church, and Christ’s second coming. Yet contrary to popular opinion, the narrative of sacred Scripture, though written with an already existing interpretation, is open and pliable. The narrative of the Bible is diverse enough to allow multiple interpretations and arrangements. Furthermore, organizations like New Tribes Mission (referenced in Van Rheenen’s article) construct highly stylized, doctrinally laden forms of telling the story. These forms of storytelling are cloaked in Western doctrine and theology. Many of these narratives or missiological programs constrict the biblical text into a predetermined doctrinal outcome. These systematic, metanarrative constructions give answer to God’s intentions in a kind of true/false structure. Jesus’ own way of communicating God’s kingdom was unsystematic, ad hoc, and open to confusion and dialogue. If we are committed to the biblical narrative, why can we not tell the story and nurture the work of interpretation within our neighbor? Why do we also have to domesticate it for them?

I have been in sub-Saharan Africa long enough to know that people read stories differently. We notice different aspects. In general, literate readers are much more prone to abstraction, while oral peoples are more likely to interpret typologically, looking for the immediate connection in their own reality. There are also diverse ways of using a sacred text—from submerging it in water for medicine, to dissecting its parts and tracing etymologies, to arguing with the veracity of the text. The particular systematic way of talking about missio Dei is already hermeneutically sealed. Instead of assuming we know what God’s mission is all about, I would prefer a more ad hoc approach to the matter. When we “open” a sacred text in my context, it is often performed or merely spoken into the air for all to hear. After the reading, the meaning of the words becomes the responsibility of the community. Such an open-ended conversation is an attempt to place the job of imaginative interpretation in the hands of the hearers. Let me add that these hearers may be Christianized, Muslim, or Animist. The only pre-hermeneutical decision offered is the reader’s choice of the passage and its relationship to the day and work in front of the community. This opens up the door for debate about proper interpretation strategies and epistemology, but I believe we must be honest with the implications of post-colonial missional activities. I propose that we read specific stories with our neighbors and discover together—in this place, at this time—what God is doing or not doing.

Human Syncretism and Missio Dei

Syncretism has been used to legitimate Western colonial power and discourage non-Western or indigenous hermeneutics of sacred texts. I do not share Van Rheenen’s concern about syncretism as a blending of popular culture and biblical truth due to my divergent perspective on syncretism.6 Our old definitions of syncretism often connoted a static view of culture. We were worried about foreign “worldviews” entering and polluting the Christian worldview. But I believe human beings are constantly shaping their beliefs and actions in response to experience. Culture and even our beliefs are in flux and in dynamic relationship to the world around us. If my wife gets sick, will I go soak a bit of the Gospel of Mark and have her drink it? No, I will probably look up something on the Internet or call a trusted Western physician. But that does not mean I am ready to call Arabic tea syncretistic and attempt to show the falseness of such behavior and the beliefs imbedded therein. My friend is attempting to navigate his way through a difficult situation based on tools within his cultural toolbox. What matters to him is not so much that Arabic tea works but the existential moment. The event has pierced his reality, and he looks for a way to respond. Fundamentally, this experience and his response will be another layer in his identity. We are all syncretistic because syncretism is about the formation of identity in lived experience. Syncretism is not about wrong answers. As a friend, as a fellow seeker of God, my interest is to help him maneuver through this experience, grow, and be healed. In this light, culture is the ecosystem by which we survive the world. Sacred texts offer tools to live within those environments. But the environment will cause the tools to be used differently. There are many people in the world who need to be given space as they integrate sacred narratives into their lives. Imagine the personal struggle to integrate foreign, biblical stories of God into a Muslim-dominated culture, complicated by animistic concerns for managing ancestors and impersonal powers! The hermeneutical process to internalize new narratives or reshape public practice by new biblical challenges is not a linear process that we can somehow predict, control, and moralize. Consequently, I’m not so worried about Arabic tea. Rather, I’m concerned about how fear can be managed, God can be identified within the context, and healing can occur.

Trinitarian Theology and Missio Dei

Allow me to reflect upon the trinitarian theology that is emerging out of missional theology. I would like to offer four reasons for why I am post-trinitarian and why this theological dogma is not helpful in missiology.

First, trinitarian theology is a second-order description of the essential biblical narrative. Like all theologies, it is not sacred but human reflection on the story. Consequently, I am not against trinitarian formulations as if they were statements of error but merely recognize that these statements are contextual. Trinitarian formulations are hypotheses based on readings of the biblical narrative. As already noted in Mark Love’s article, trinitarian theology has been a kind of religious, Western philosophical exposition over themes such as unity and personhood.7 Despite the beautiful and appealing philosophical work many have done, trinitarian theology is often dumbed down by missionaries into a kind of lesson we give to people about “who God is.” In other words, we are still fixated on the inner life of God (immanent trinitarianism). Instead of exploring who God is based upon what we see God doing (economic trinitarianism), we end up falling into a kind of theological abstraction. Again, I am okay with local theologies, even if they are abstract. But because trinitarian theology is so culturally laden, it is inappropriate to use as a key to how we interact with the world.

Second, I am going to have to play the Muslim card again. Trinitarian discussions with Muslims just are not helpful. The single, dogmatic Muslim appeal “God is one!” is not interested in such philosophical abstractions. My neighbor does not need to agree on the Trinity for him to be part of the kingdom. Even if we want to say that the Trinity is embedded in the narrative of the Bible, we still have to admit that it is an abstraction from the narrative. There is no Trinity. There is simply a character in the divine drama called Jesus who speaks to the Father in the garden. Living among an oral people, this level of abstraction is extremely foreign and not useful for spiritual development. No matter how nuanced the poetics of trinitarianism have become, reality simplifies the issue into two camps: those who believe in three gods and those who believe in one. I used to carry the sleek trinitarian card myself, but I have been called to let go of it. Trinitarianism might open wonderful doors of dialogue with Hindus, but it is not helpful where I live. My beliefs are local. I can understand its attractive qualities, but the reality I engage finds it false.

Third, trinitarian theology hides a dangerous concern for nailing down Jesus’ ontology. I am a follower of Jesus. I try to be. But I am called to follow Jesus, not explain how God’s mystery works. The only reason we have the Trinity is because we need to find a spot for Jesus. The Council of Nicea was a violent leveling of the conversation. But even the conversation had devolved into explaining God instead of following God. Why can we not allow the various terms for Jesus to fill our vocabularies in the local contexts where we live and work? Speaking of Jesus as prophet and Messiah are very helpful words in my context. I’m not reducing Jesus by using them. I’m sticking to the narrative. On a philosophical level, there are traces of modernity’s obsession with ontology within trinitarianism. God—God’s naked being exposed for the world to ogle—is not to be explained. God is to be engaged. God exposes us. We can speak of God like we speak of the effects of wind, but we cannot dissect the wind, or God.

Fourth, trinitarian theology limits the narrative’s characters and therefore the Scriptures as well. As mentioned in Mark Love’s article, new theologies of the Trinity have worked to dislodge the linear movement of the three characters. I applaud these works but find two problems.

One, the interdependence revealed within the Godhead is not consistently applied. By shuffling the order (Father-Son-Spirit; Spirit-Son-Father; Father-Spirit-Son), Moltmann shows a beautiful interdependence within God.8 But the language of “interdependence” is not applied to God’s dealing with the world. If God’s inner life is built upon a kind of cooperation, then God’s invitation to the world should also fit within this assumption of interdependence. From this model, God is not only making room for the other (i.e., the world) but is also dependent upon the world. This might go too far into process theology for some, but on a purely theoretical level, I find it helpful in my life in sub-Saharan Africa. God was dependent upon Moses to respond to the burning bush. Moses could have walked away from the event. God needs us to interpret God’s self into the world around us. A trinitarian God centered on interdependence is dependent upon the world for further self-disclosure, in the same way the world is dependent upon God for further redemption. This might be the deconstructive element within missio Dei, but I find it helpful. Yes, this is God’s mission, but let us not forget God’s presence is always an act of interpretation. To some extent, we must take responsibility for our actions and hermeneutical projects. The crucifixion, in this light, is a reminder of the dangerous ability we have to kill God. If we do not take responsibility to become part of God’s life, then God’s life will suffer and be miscommunicated or forgotten.

Two, threeness limits the characters in the divine drama. The historical way of explaining God’s trinitarian nature leaves out the primordial. In the beginning, God hovered over already existing waters. There is an element disturbingly missing in trinitarian theology. It is all God and humans. In the end, I would think it simpler to talk about a kind of interdependent dualism of God and world. But let me at least suggest that creation is a left-out character. We work with people who are suffering because the creation is suffering. We are not being stewards of creation—we leave the earth out of the trinitarian dance. But the groans of creation are also our groans. The people suffer because the land suffers. There is no divine drama without the stage. This is not about making sure we give a nod to the environmentalists because it is politically correct. Where I live, the land kills and gives life. There must be an integration of God’s life into the life of the soil.

Finally, the reason many churches objectify the “world” into demographic points is not because of a paternal trinitarian theology. The problem is soteriological. We have objectified the planet into the saved and the lost. Therefore, the move from linear to interdependent should be driven more by soteriology. Put differently, our trinitarian views will change when we change our soteriology, because Christians spend more time dividing their world up according to questions about eternity, salvation, and damnation than the structure of God’s life. Consequently, it is more pressing to talk about what we mean by salvation, heaven, and hell than to reformulate the structure of the Trinity. I can only listen and belong to my Imam friend if I first change my soteriology.

Missional Church and Missio Dei

A common application of current missiology, including specific interpretations of missio Dei, has centered on the concept of missional churches. A healthy movement of theologically aligning the identity of the church with God’s mission, missional church theology has integrated community, congregational theology, and missio Dei. This movement also providing a critique of modern church practice. However, the movement has been cultivated in a context where church culture is assumed and is even in the majority. This sociological context has shaped the theology in ways not useful for a missiology in other contexts. I live in an area where the Western form of church is absent. The majority of the people are Folk Muslim. I have learned to live without the division of church and world. Consequently, I do not deal with trying to help churches shift from objectifying the world to living with the world, as American missional churches do. My friend, mentioned at the beginning, is part of my congregation because he and I live in the same village. Our lives are intertwined and we are in community despite our differences. For this reason, I must argue that we do not learn the language of God in worship. If we believe that God is in essence relational—if God is love—then we learn about God not by speaking God-speak in homogeneous gatherings cut off from the world but in diverse conversation out in the field. I have come back to the States on furlough after being away for three years and have been literally unable to understand what my fellow brother is saying because his religious language has become so hermetical. I have learned to talk about God, argue about God, and listen to God literally out in the field. In the context of work or play, I have been part of discussions about who God is, the existence of Satan, and predeterminism. These concepts and characters only matter out in the world. We learn to talk about God only in the world, not in church. This has huge implications for religious practice in the West and missiological theory.

Final Thoughts

The recent theological turn of missiology is healthy. In the past, we were driven by strategy. But I still believe the strategy was shaped and driven by deeper theological values. All the evangelistic strategies of the door-knocking era were still empowered by a certain soteriology. Consequently, I do favor more explicitly and publicly naming the theology that drives missiology. However, I am afraid that if we are not careful, an overly theological missiology will domesticate a very useful, marginal discipline. Missiology has been an aid for us to hear from anthropology, ecology, community development, and even history. These are the strangers of the academic theological world that we should continue to offer hospitality. The interdisciplinary nature of missiology has kept us on our toes. I suggest we not isolate missiology and therefore ourselves by allowing theology to overshadow and silence the voices from the outside. This is God’s mission and God often chooses those in the margins to carry the message. Missiology helps keep our ears tuned to be able to hear everyone from an ancient Semitic donkey to a secular anthropologist.

Kyle Holton lives with his family in northern Mozambique. He is married to Ginger Holton and has three children: Asher, Eli, and Eden. They have lived among the Yao of the region since 2004. Along with their colleagues, they have helped establish a non-profit organization called Malo Ga Kujilana, which means “place of reconciliation.” The organization is composed of local families who manage a sustainable, natural resource center and work to seed the kingdom of God among their neighbors in the community. Find out more at:


Bosch, David. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. American Society of Missiology Series 16. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991.

Grenz, Stanley J. Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).

Lindbeck, George A. The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1984).

Love, Mark. “Missio Dei, Trinitarian Theology, and the Quest for a Post-Colonial Missiology,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 1 (August 2010): 53-70.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn. “From Theology to Practice: Participating in the Missio Dei,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 1 (August 2010): 30-51.

1 David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series 16 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 390.

2 Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).

3 George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1984).

4 The NRSV is used in all biblical quotations.

5 See Gailyn Van Rheenen’s article in the present issue, 33-37.

6 Van Rheenen, 31.

7 See Mark Love’s article in the present issue, 57-9.

8 Love, 63-64.

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