Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Gospel in a Changing World

Pam and I have been in Japan now for almost a week, hanging out  with our daughter and seeing a small sliver of life here. She and her husband are halfway through a three-year deployment, so this time is a gift and we’ve cherished every moment of it.

It’s easy to love this place. Manicured trees line almost every street and you rarely even see a home patio that’s not covered with flowers. Well-dressed children walk to school in groups, happily chattering along the roads. Older adults are everywhere, walking, biking, talking, visiting. Unlike our own country, the aged here are fully a part of the larger community and there’s in general a sense of well-ordered community that embraces almost everyone.

A beautiful creek runs through the center of our neighborhood with houses lining both banks. Cherry trees form a canopy:

Even Katie’s been accepted into her neighborhood to the extent that she was impressed into a recent parade in front of her house.  Pretty funny picture of that:

You can read more at her blog: thebargersinjapan.blogspot.com

People here are unfailingly courteous and pleasant. We’ve eaten a couple of times at a local Ramen restaurant, and each time as we leave, the cook and his wife laugh and bow and tell us matto dozo, come back again. That’s been the case throughout our stay here.

The Japanese people take delight in incorporating American (and other) influences into their culture. The whimsical result is often hilarious. A young boy on the subway, for instance, wore a baseball hat that proudly proclaimed in English: “The purpose for my being here is in order to be a witness to the brightness of my own self.” Huh?

And walking down the street the other day I encountered a home garden, carefully and lovingly maintained that contained several incongruous ceramic objects: a couple of cute dogs, Walt Disney’s Seven Dwarves and two cherubs like you see in church cemeteries:

And this is where Japan starts to grow more intriguing. Look again. Angels and the Seven Dwarves in the same presentation? Neither one has anything remotely Japanese in origin to it. They don’t even represent the same sense of reality: the dwarves are a product of American Hollywood and the angels a speculative offshoot of Western-style Christianity. Not to put too fine a meaning to it, but those two things wouldn't normally fit together.

They do in Japan. The mindset here readily accepts all sorts of outside influences in ways that most other cultures would find unacceptable. The language, for instance, is written with three different scripts, two of which originated in China. English is also written everywhere. The political and economic systems are obviously western, despite a long history of aristocracy.

I’ve circled around all this to make the point that nowhere is this way of thinking more evident than in their religious life, a truth that makes missions to the Japanese particularly challenging.

Most sources report that Japan is one of the most secular nations on earth. The national obsession is with business more than anything else. But that’s far from the truth. The Japanese are in fact very religious but not in ways that we’re comfortable with.

The traditional Japanese religion is Shinto, a nature-based religion that originated over 1500 years ago. It emphasizes connection with ancestors as well as celebrative rites for various life passages, things like marriages, births and business openings. Shinto shrines are in every neighborhood and are easily recognizable by their Torii gates. Here’s the shrine one block from Katie’s house:

According to some estimates, Shinto is observed by upwards of 80% of the population.

But Shinto isn’t the only religion. Buddhism is also widely observed. The distinctive pagodas are everywhere, especially in the cemeteries. An import from India via China over a thousand years ago, Buddhism is almost as widely observed as Shinto, with estimates as high as 70% of Japanese people acknowledging their belief in it.

Those numbers don’t add up. How can 80% of the people follow Shinto while at the same time 70% of the people claim to be Buddhists? The answer is simple: most people do both.

Shinto is usually observed for the happy times of life, births and marriages especially. Buddhism on the other hand is reserved for more painful experiences like death. The Japanese people have no problem in choosing whichever religion best suits their need of the moment. You can also throw into the mix a growing trend toward Christian chapel weddings, where the officiants dress up as Christian priests. Here's a cemetery around the corner from Katie's house, filled with Buddhist pagodas:

As you can imagine, penetrating this culture with the gospel of Jesus is particularly difficult. Christian missions in Japan, after more than a century of active work, has led to less than 3 million believers, out of a country of 127 million.

Here in America we’re well past the era of a broad Christian consensus. Today a vast range of religious options exists and our people are coming to regard religion as more a smorgasbord than a single menu. Like the Japanese, as our culture becomes more pluralized, our religious beliefs grow more diverse. And we, too, grow more accustomed to picking and choosing among whatever religious beliefs we find most personally appealing.

Today, a devout Methodist may be convinced she’ll be reincarnated. A Baptist may consult a medium, just to cover his bases. A Lutheran feels no compunction about including native American prayers to the Great Spirit into his devotional life.

America will never be Japan, but the undercurrents I’m seeing here are the same throughout the post-modern world. No nation is exempt. And figuring out how to present the gospel to a pluralistic culture is the most pressing concern of the church today, whether we realize it or not.

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