Pam and I are both pretty busy on our Master’s at the moment. Much is going on, but not much time to write about it. Here is a recent essay on the book I have just finished.
Paul Gordon Hiebert (1932-2007) was born in India to second generation Mennonite Brethren missionaries, and passed away in at the age of 74. Dr. Hiebert combined rigorous anthropological and theological scholarship with a passion for God’s global missionary work and was a vigorous researcher who authored twelve books, of which Transforming Worldview is his most widely admired.
Hiebert’s thesis grows from the understanding that “when we seek to win people to Christ, we look for some evidence of conversion” in behavior. However, he notes: “people could adapt their behavior to get jobs, win status, and gain power without abandoning their old beliefs.” He reasons that, “transforming explicit beliefs is not enough to plant churches that are faithful to the gospel,” and posits that, “conversion may include a change in beliefs and behavior, but if the worldview is not transformed, in the long run the gospel is subverted and the result is a syncretistic Christo-paganism, which has the form of Christianity but not its essence.” Hiebert argues that transforming world view must be the central task of the church in the twenty-first century.
Hiebert supports his contention by first looking at the concept and characteristics of worldview. He defines worldview as, “the assumptions people make about the nature of reality which they use to order their lives.” This includes myth and other meta-narratives that cultures use to explain eternal truths that lie outside the bounds of empirical measurement and analysis. Such worldviews are resistant to change as they help to shape and integrate entire cultures. Hiebert then examines how worldviews are contested, citing the work of Michel Foucault, Lewis Mumford and Neil Postman.
Hiebert then directs his attention to an examination of spiritual systems, noting that, “Satan seeks to blind people by keeping them bound by false ideologies,” and that “concern for this life rather than eternity has led to a stress on physical comfort and material abundance.” Later chapters explore other impediments, such as “the myth of evolution” and “the myth of redemptive violence,” which Hiebert sees as rampant in Western ideology, brilliantly tracing its roots to gnostic dualism.
Hiebert then traces the decline of modernism, noting that over the past one hundred years, “this presumably enlightened century has loosed more rivers of blood and piled up more mountains of corpses than any century in history” and that as far as the present age is concerned, “the vision of utopia provided by modernity has been lost.” In its place post-modernity holds out a fractured view of humanity that focuses on individual, rather than community values, and has little room for the grand meta-narratives of religion.
Hiebert’s scope is breathtaking. In this relatively short book, Hiebert exposes all the shortcomings of the missionary enterprise of the past 500 years. For our current missionary understanding, this book is foundational. The man is fearless, wise and insightful. He spares neither secular empiricism, nor theological/missiological syncretism. I particularly appreciated his analysis of the intellectual paucity of scientific reductionism, whose superficial understanding of the complexities of reality is matched only by its didactic arrogance.
My own exploration of culture since my conversion, largely as a result of the writings of C.S. Lewis, has been limited to Neil Postman, Noam Chomsky, Herbert Marcuse, Edward T. Hall and John Pilger, secular writers who alone it seemed were willing to take on the intellectual hegemony that has characterized the last fifty years of thought in the West. Christian writers seem largely concerned with padding their pews and their wallets and were little inclined to gore their own gilded ox. Reading Hiebert was like watching Muhammed Ali thoughtfully and remorselessly reducing his opponent to physical incoherence. A very impressive work.