Martial Arts and the Christian

1 March 2019

A friend wrote me recently, passing on some questions he’d been asked about Christian participation in martial arts. Of course I’ve addressed these questions many times over the years, and his email ended up sparking an essay. So–lightly edited–here it is.

One of the first lessons I learned about speaking on Christian participation in martial arts training is that context matters. In the usual settings where the subject comes up for me, my principal concern is explaining my own practice—which is quite a different thing from addressing whatever might happen in the storefront dojo nearest you.

So I have two basic things to say: On the one hand, these things can be done well, and to the glory of Christ. On the other hand, they often are not, pagans are plentiful, and an awful lot depends on the teacher. Discerning whether a particular school, instructor, or class is a good choice for a particular student can be a tricky business, since it depends not only on the instructor but also on the maturity and needs of the student. But we are called to have our senses exercised to discern good from evil, so if it’s going to be difficult, we’d better gird up our loins and get to it. God is light; He’ll show us the way.

As with all such areas of liberty, Romans 14 applies. It’s good to look into it, and it’s good to be fully convinced in one’s own mind. Different people may come to different conclusions about the same program, and they may both be right…for them.

A Christian who walks into your typical storefront dojo (a taekwondo school, say) finds himself in an alien world. There’s a bunch of people wearing pajamas and bowing to one another, folks with arcane titles like “Master” and “Grandmaster” and so on. What does it all mean? Can a Christian be part of it?

As to the bowing and titles, I’d advise looking into what it means in the parent culture. If two businessmen in that culture would traditionally bow to one another when they meet (as opposed to shaking hands like we do), then I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s a greeting. You’re paying to learn a practice from someone else’s culture; it’s silly to be upset that they don’t act like Westerners. Similarly, look to what the titles mean in the home culture.

For example, my own title (which I never use except on official paperwork, but more about my practice later) is Guru Muda, which is enough to make any red-blooded, English-speaking Christian spit. But in Bahasa Indonesia, guru means ‘teacher’ with no particular spiritual connotations; one can be a guru of chemistry or Chinese literature or engineering. (Muda means ‘young;’ the ‘young teacher’ designation is roughly analogous to an ‘associate professor’ in our university ranking system. The next step up is ‘teacher;’ the one after that is ‘master teacher.’) The reason guru has spiritual connotations in English is because spiritual teachers from India used their native word for teacher (guru) when they came here—Vivekananda and the like. For the same reason, the Japanese sensei has martial arts connotations in America, thanks to the karate teachers who came here (and the Karate Kid movies)—but again, in Japanese it just means teacher. A friend of mine who was teaching English in Tokyo thought it was really funny that his students called him their sensei. They didn’t understand why it sounded funny to him—to them, sensei has no martial arts connotations.

As to the flag and the yin-yang symbol: Taekwondo in particular is regarded as a Korean national heritage, and the Korean flag is nearly always displayed in Taekwondo schools (as you’ll sometimes find the Japanese flag displayed in a traditional Karate school). I look forward to the day when the symbol on the Korean flag is a cross rather than a yin-yang, but I’d be reluctant to conclude something was spiritually fishy about a particular school based on the flag alone. I mean, jeepers, there’s a bunch of pentagrams on the American flag, but nobody thinks you’re secretly worshiping the host of heaven because you happen to have a flag on your porch or in your church. (Whether it belongs in your church, and what it means to display it there, is another discussion. But it doesn’t mean you’re a sky-worshiper.)

On these sorts of things, you have to keep in mind what you’re doing, and accept its necessary conditions as the cost of doing business. You’re learning to fight from people who know how. Taking one thing with another, the people who are really great fighters did not get that way by being happy, well-adjusted humans. You’re not likely to be dealing with saints and Sunday school teachers, ya know? (Yes, there are exceptions. Don’t hold your breath.)

Another (often-)necessary condition is crossing cultural barriers. Here in the West, we developed firearms to an exquisite degree, and at the same time we have developed a society that’s less violent than anything ever seen before in human history. Apart from some arcane holdouts if you know where to look, the West has not really preserved its traditions of hand-to-hand combat; those that have a serious need, carry guns. So you’re going to a culture where their hand-to-hand arts haven’t been lost, to learn the way they do it—which is different than how things are done here. So you remember who’s the visitor, and be polite. If they bow instead of shaking hands, you learn how to bow. If they like onion in their tea, then you learn to drink onion in your tea. If they treat their bruises with foul-smelling herbs after practice, then you do too.

If they bow to a little shrine containing pictures of their ancestors in the art, you politely explain that you will happily offer God a prayer of thanksgiving for those who have preserved the art for you and passed it down to you, but God forbids bowing to images of the dead. If they won’t teach you because of that, off you go—that one wasn’t for you. But the point here is that outside of things God actually forbids, there’s no point in going all ‘ugly American’ just because the foreigners are acting foreign. If you don’t like it, go to a boxing gym.

The degree to which a particular school spends time on whatever philosophy may underlie the art varies widely from school to school, and sometimes from teacher to teacher even within a single school. Some places, it gets pretty deep. Other places focus on the physical art. (One teacher, asked about the spiritual side of his (Japanese) art, said, “Yeah, there’s a spiritual side: the dead guy doesn’t get to go to church.” Another one, this one Chinese: “Our philosophy? Our philosophy is to crash through the opponent’s center and kill him.” Not everybody uses the art as a platform for teaching a spirituality.)

The point here is, you gotta go and find out for yourself, and whether it’s a deal-breaker depends on what the prospective student is ready for. An awful lot of Christians want some kind of guarantee in advance that nothing will make them uncomfortable. They seem afraid of getting somehow tainted by rubbing shoulders with pagans. They’d prefer to do all their research online, and won’t go to the events and meet the people. That’s a poor way to handle apologetic engagement. Apologetic engagement requires, well, engagement. If you don’t go and see for yourself, you’ve no right to complain when people answer your objections by telling you that you don’t know the first thing about it. They’re right; you don’t.

Having found out, you then have to answer some hard questions. Is this philosophy attractive to me? Does it repulse me? Why? What is true about it? What is false about it? How do I know? The cautions Paul gives in Colossians about philosophy and vain deceit apply here, as do the characteristics of idolatrous thought laid out in Romans 1. Any Christless philosophy is vain and self-defeating, but sometimes it takes some growth in us before the self-defeating nature of the system becomes apparent to us. At the same time, because everyone–despite their ardent pretense otherwise–is living in Yahweh’s world, they often learn some useful things about that world. Sifting the operations of common grace from the operations of human depravity takes a good eye. So we need to grow, but there’s no need for panic.

Those same cautions apply to enrolling in Leviathan State University as an engineering or pre-med major. The student will encounter all kinds of ugly ideas and sub-Christian worldviews. There’s work to be done to counter them, but God has not given us a spirit of fear. You don’t want someone enrolling—either in your state university or in a martial arts school—who isn’t up to the challenge the environment will present to their worldview. So get ‘em ready, and then send ‘em in.

Now, as to what I do with my classes: I don’t pretend this is The One Right Way To Do Things, but I’ve been teaching since 1999, and this is what I’ve found works best for me and mine. I practice Kuntao Silat, an Indonesian art brought here by Dutch-Indonesian immigrants in the 60s. Some of the leaders and senior practitioners are Christian; some are not. The roots of the art are deeply mixed: Muslim, animist, Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist, Christian. There are some practices in our history I don’t find appropriate as a Christian, so I don’t do them.

The terminology of the art is largely in Bahasa Indonesia, with a smattering of other languages thrown in; Indonesia is a polyglot kinda place in language and culture, just like it is in religion. I know what the Indonesian terms mean, but my students mostly don’t;  I teach my classes in English. (E.g., sapu and beset are two fundamental leg movements in the art; my students know them as ‘scoop’ and ‘drag’ respectively.) Shoot, half my students don’t even know my title is Guru Muda. They call me Tim.

We don’t open my classes with a bow. We open my classes with a blessing (and since I’m not starting a cult, we do it round-robin style; I give and receive.) All my students learn to speak blessing over other people, even if it’s a simple, “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” or “May your training be blessed today.” If you’re not willing to look another human being in the eye and speak blessing over them, I’m certainly not going to teach you how to hurt people.

After the blessing, we begin the class, which is informal and at times very demanding. You can teach martial arts with a number of different focuses (sport, cultural heritage, performance art, fitness, healthy movement, mental discipline, self-defense); I focus on healthy movement, discipline, and self-defense.

At the end of class, we finish with a closing circle where each student has to articulate one thing he learned that day, and one thing he intends to practice in the coming week. Then we have a closing blessing, and class is over.

Along with translating the terms to English, I’ve dropped a lot of the cultural trappings. This is a philosophical decision each teacher has to make for themselves: do you try to replicate your own learning experience as closely as possible, or do you cannibalize your own learning experience selectively to craft a new learning experience for your students? If you are, say, a traditionally raised Japanese man who learned jiu-jutsu from another traditionally raised Japanese man, you have a pretty good shot at reproducing your learning experience for the next generation of students, and it might be a good idea.

In my circumstances, that approach didn’t make much sense. The men who brought my arts to the U.S. grew up in colonial Dutch Indonesia before WWII, and like the Preacher said, “All is mist.” They are the products of a unique time, place, and culture that no longer exists. I’m a white boy from Virginia; I can’t reproduce that culture and I don’t intend to try. All the bowing and flags and so on leaves me cold, so I don’t bother with it. I’m passing on the fighting art, so that’s what we spend time on. I’ll teach some tidbits about the culture and history as it illuminates the movement or the mentality of the art (which it does), but the point is to understand the fighting art.

In my classes, we laugh a lot. We play, we have fun. But I also make my students face the ugliness of what we’re doing, for two reasons. First, I want them to come to terms with it in training before they have to face it for real. Second, it’s bad for your soul to romanticize a discipline where the raw material is healthy bodies and the finished product is cripples and corpses.

The theology is relevant, and it comes up as we work through the ethical issues that come with training to injure people. We can’t lose sight of the fact that what we are training for is not good. We broke the world, and introduced evil. We are living with the consequences, which include the need to fight evil—if you love sheep, you have to be ready to fight wolves. But—thank God—these things have an end. Jesus has already triumphed over evil and buried it in the heart of the earth; it just doesn’t know it’s dead yet.

On the glorious last day, we will beat our swords into plowshares, our spears into pruning hooks. From that day forward, we will no longer study war, and that will not be a sad day. No one will look back nostalgically at the good old days when we worked so hard to be ready to hurt people. But you have to know where you are in the story; friends don’t let friends over-realize their eschatology. Our job is to be ready for the last day when it comes, and until then, to be ready for tomorrow no matter what comes.

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Christian Yoga?

8 February 2019

Once upon a time, I was part of starting and hosting a Christian yoga practice group. Naturally this raised questions, which I answered thus: 

Let’s talk about what our yoga practice looks like, why we do it, and why we call it Christian yoga. We recognize that some Christians are nervous about yoga, so at the bottom of the page, we’ll also devote some attention to those concerns. We also commend to you our essay on the real history of modern yoga, which is a bit different than people think.

What do we do?
The word “yoga” tends to conjure up images of bendy young women in impossible poses. What we do is a little different from that. First of all, a number of us are men. We’ve done a lot of fun things that were bad for our bodies over the years, and this kind of exercise helps us recover. Second, while the young are certainly welcome, most of us are over 40. Third, most of us don’t do impossible poses. Some of us can’t even reach our toes. Other than that, it’s a lot like you might think: slow movements that focus on control, mobility, strength, balance, and coordinating movement and breath. Because we’re Christians, we practice like it, with a focus on Christ and what He is doing in us.

Why do we do it?
Because there are significant health benefits to this kind of exercise, and we can all feel the difference. Because we believe that the gym belongs to Jesus as surely as every other area of life, and we prefer to exercise in an attitude of prayer rather than in the attitude of self-worship that’s so common in places where they hang mirrors on all the walls.

Why do we call it “Christian Yoga?”
We are aware, of course, that “yoga” is a Sanskrit word that means “yoking” or “union,” and that among people who use yoga posture practice as a Hindu spiritual discipline, it is intended to connote union with “the divine,” which we would understand as union with demonic spirits. (Sorry, guys, but it’s true.) Obviously, we don’t do that.

We are also aware that “yoga” has gone the way of kleenex, band-aid, and velcro. It may have been a narrowly construed religious brand back in the 60s and 70s, but in branding terms, that was a long time ago. The term “yoga” has long since entered the popular lexicon as the generic label for a particular kind of exercise: a complex, relaxing, posture practice, challenging to the point of being gymnastic at times, focused on flexibility, balance, and control.

Of course, when legally constrained to do so, people can avoid brand names and use circumlocutions like “facial tissue,” “adhesive bandage,” and “hook and loop fastener.” Some Christians have done exactly that with yoga (see the note on PraiseMoves, below). They are acting in the way most agreeable with their consciences. As Paul calls us to do in Romans 14, we bless their efforts. After all, who are we to judge God’s servants?

At the same time, we aren’t called to take that route ourselves. Everybody knows that when you say “hook and loop fastener,” you really mean velcro. Likewise, we could call what we do “Christian restorative gymnastics” or “stretching for Jesus” or something, but let’s face it: five minutes into the class, everyone will know it’s Christian yoga, so why not just say so to start with?

Today, the generic term “yoga” has a lot of latitude, and people attach different modifiers to connote different focuses of practice, hence “power yoga,” “restorative yoga,” “flow yoga,” and “prenatal yoga.” So, for example, prenatal yoga is a yoga exercise practice specifically designed for the needs and concerns of expectant mothers. It leaves out those things that would hurt mother or baby, and in their place it teaches things that will help them to grow healthily. Likewise, Christian yoga is a yoga exercise practice specifically designed for the needs and concerns of Christians. It leaves out those things that we as Christians find damaging or dehumanizing, and in their place it teaches things that will strengthen and deepen our relationship with Jesus.

Retaking the Territory
A lot of Christians are afraid of yoga, and depending on what we mean by “yoga,” the fears can be well-founded. But they can also be poppycock, and in any case, God has not given us a spirit of fear.

If you go into a studio and there’s a little brass Kali in the corner with a bowl of fruit in front of her, yeah — a Christian should be concerned that demonic entanglement is a real possibility in that yoga class. A Christian seeking exercise should walk right out of there and never go back.

On the other hand, it’s profoundly silly to suppose that a healthy exercise — any healthy exercise — can somehow become the exclusive property of a demon. Why would we ever believe that?

Suppose the U.S. Marine Corps were to claim rights to the pushup. Suppose they were to claim that the pushup was a Marine exercise, and unless you intend to be a Marine, you have no right to be doing pushups. Should anyone believe them? Of course not.

“There is not one square inch of the whole creation over which Christ does not call out, ‘Mine!’” Our bodies belong to Christ. Our health belongs to Christ. Every healthy exercise rightly belongs to Christ. The yogini who thinks her body and its movements belong to Shiva is sorely mistaken. The secularist in a step aerobics class at Bally’s who thinks there is no religious significance to her body and its movements is equally mistaken. (And you can see her true religion for yourself when she glances over her shoulder to admire her toned backside in the mirrors that liberally adorn the walls.) Over both of them, Christ calls out, “Mine!”

We all worship something; we can’t help it. As Christians, we believe that every movement we make, every day, all day, should glorify Christ. As we seek to enjoy the bodies God has given us, and to steward them well, we are in His service, and we should not be afraid to employ whatever belongs to Him.

Now there are exercises over which one lying demon or another has shouted “Mine!” and there are foolish people who have believed them — notable yogis and Dave Hunt among them. A good Christian should respond to that foolishness in the same way we would respond if the Marines were to try to claim the pushup: point and laugh. A claim has been made, to be sure, but that hardly makes it true. As the hands and feet of Christ in the world, it is our privilege to reclaim that territory for our King. Where healthy movement is being foolishly and unlawfully prostituted to the service of demons, it is our pleasure to return it to its right use in service of the King, and to demonstrate His supremacy over it.

This is not simply a matter of appropriating useful movement wherever we happen to find it. The spiritual battle is real. If the Marines were to claim exclusive rights to the pushup, we could expect them to press their claim vigorously and try to punish those who didn’t respect it. Likewise, where demons have claimed the territory, they will try to hold it. We cannot expect to retake the territory without a fight. But retake it we will, because we are the church of Jesus Christ, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against us.

Christian Yoga Resources
In our pursuit of yoga-style exercise, we have found a number of resources helpful for the physical exercise — most of them not authored by Christians. But there are some yoga resources created by and for Christians. We don’t vouch for everything they say about the theory and theology of Christian yoga, but when it comes to what’s on the mat, we have found them helpful, and we think you might, too.

  • Susan Bordenkircher has a book/DVD combination that is a pretty good place to start your Christian yoga practice. She also has a few other DVDS on her website. We began our group practice with nothing but her three DVDs.
  • Brooke Boone’s Holy Yoga has a number of DVDs, a couple books, downloadable resources, a subscription service, and teacher training.
  • Yahweh Yoga has DVDs, CDs, a book, online resources, and teacher training.
  • PraiseMoves has built their brand around being not-yoga, but rather a Christian alternative to it. They have a number of DVDs.

Accounting for the Weird Stuff

21 December 2018

We do not live in the world materialists think we do. Here are a couple of experiences for the sake of illustration:

***

A few weeks ago on a Sunday night, I had a dream about a friend of mine. We hadn’t been in touch in about 6 months, but I dreamt that she had come to me for a massage. at 9:30 the next morning, she texted me: “My back is really hurting and it’s not getting better. Is there any chance you could fit me in today?”

***

A couple years ago I was working with a friend, giving a deep and fairly intense massage. It was only my second of the day, and nowhere near being physically taxing. As I was nearing the end of the massage, I was working on her arm when I suddenly couldn’t get enough air. My diaphragm just wouldn’t relax, and my breathing went to crap. I checked my body mechanics, grounded myself, all the usual things — nothing. My breathing was still a mess. I continued to work and hoped it would pass. (My friend later told me that she could hear my irregular breathing, and was beginning to worry about me.)

Then it suddenly occurred to me to ask her: “Is there something going on with your diaphragm?”

She said yes, as a matter of fact, she’d been having problems with her diaphragm, but she hadn’t asked for diaphragm work, because we only had 90 minutes, and we were already focusing on a fairly long list of other things she felt were a higher priority. As soon as we were talking about it, my diaphragm calmed down, and I could breathe normally again.

Of course, after I finished her arm, I did some diaphragm work, and then moved on with the session as planned, and all was well.

***

Far from being unusual, these kinds of occurrences have grown commonplace in my life and work. While as single, one-off events they might be dismissed as nothing more than odd coincidences, as trends they require explanation. As Christians, we don’t believe in a chaotic world; we believe in order. We believe that phenomena have an explanation. And so we seek one, and we must do so like Christians.

As Christians, we also believe there is more to the world than matter in motion. We may not believe God created the world and Jesus walked on water and rose from the dead, and then retreat into our best Richard Dawkins impersonation when we are confronted with continuing manifestations of the world as more than matter in motion.

So how do we engage in the task of giving an account for the world with the full range of our worldview in play?

Stay tuned.


Steps Toward Recovery

2 November 2018

If we’re going to recover obedient healing ministry in the Church — healing that is biblically faithful, and actually works, then we’re going to have to give some thought to how we do this. What follows are some largely random reflections about doing it.

We aren’t going to get very far sitting on our collective butts thinking holy thoughts. Theory without practice is a disease, and too many of us have it. The only antidote is getting out there and trying things. See what happens in the world God actually made, not just what we think might happen if we actually, you know, did stuff.

We need to be active seekers and curators of experience. We need to try things, and we need to remember what happened — especially if it was something weird that we have no category for. The experiences that are way off the map — those are the ones that help us revise our maps. We aren’t going to learn much if we ignore the weird stuff.

We need to be biblically faithful. If Scripture gives us reason to expect something that is outside our experience (like, say, miraculous healing), then we need to lean into that. If Scripture tells us not to do something (like calling on other gods), we need to obey that.

At the same time, we need to pay careful attention to what the Bible does, and does not, say. Our deeply disobedient tradition will tend to protect itself by calling things “unbiblical” that are necessary and proper, but simply not attested in Scripture. Like, say, a particular tune for Psalm 23. There’s nothing biblical about assigning that particular tune to that particular psalm — but we have to use some tune, and if this one works, why not?

We need to pay attention to what we don’t know about first-century practice. The things that were obvious to them are opaque to us, because nobody ever wrote them down — things like order of service, specific details of church governmental structure, tunes for the Psalms, the exact technique for laying on hands, the selection of an oil for anointing, and so on — none of these things has been preserved for us in Scripture. But we have to do something.

We need to become masters of good and necessary consequence. If we are called to lay on hands, then we must lay hands in some manner. If we are called to anoint with oil, then we’re going to use some kind of oil. There’s nothing essentially biblical about resting a hand over the heart or using bergamot oil, but is there anything wrong with it?

We need to become masters of observation. If one manner of laying on hands has an effect that another manner does not, we should notice. If one oil has an effect that another does not, we should notice. Growing in skill means noticing these things, and doing what works better.

We need to pay attention to our whole family tree. Not every branch of the Church has been as disobedient in this area as we have been. We can learn from the experiences of other saints, widely separated from us in time, space, and ecclesiology — but united to us in Christ.

We have to be ruthlessly honest students of what works. An approach with an honorable pedigree may fail because (a) it just doesn’t work, (b) it requires skill or character we don’t have, (c) we misunderstood, or (d) some other reason we didn’t think of. But if it doesn’t work for us now, it doesn’t work for us now. We might revisit it later, with a better understanding. In the meantime, we’d better try something else.


Recovering Obedience: How It Works

26 October 2018

Jesus healed people. He taught His disciples to heal people. He told them they would do greater works than He — and they did. The early Church was known for its ability to heal. The Church today is not. Something has changed, and not for the better.

Early on, we were obedient to what Jesus had trained us to do. Somewhere along the way, we lost that habit of obedience, and today, the people who lean into healing ministry are an anomaly in the church. We think they’re weird, and look on them with suspicion. We’ll talk some other time about how this deplorable state of affairs came about, but today, I want to look at fixing it. When disobedience has become the tradition, and obedience is weird…that’s pretty much the definition of worldliness. What does it take to reverse that?

I had never really engaged that question until about 10 years ago. I was still a few years away from my paradigm shift on healing ministry, but God challenged me in the area of worship — specifically, singing psalms. Now in the modern church we sometimes draw on a psalm as inspiration for a worship song, but we don’t really sing the Psalms. This is a serious problem, because the New Testament three times says we should. So I was challenged that — as a matter of simple Christian obedience — I needed to become a Psalm-singing person. But I had no resources, no tradition to draw on. My church just didn’t do that. No church I’d ever been part of did.

So for the first time in my life, as a seminary-trained pastor, I embarked on a quest to obey the Bible in a way that was entirely outside my tradition. It was going to be life-changing, in three ways.

  1. The practice of immersing myself in the Psalms absolutely transformed my relationship with God. I became able to speak with God with complete honesty. Worship became much sweeter. Where once prayer had been the weak point of my spiritual life, it became a place of strength.
  2. This was the first time I had seriously contemplated that my tradition might be content with disobedience to the Scriptures, and might be seriously resistant to becoming obedient. Once I experienced that resistance in the area of worship music, I began to wonder if there were other areas where we had allowed our disobedient tradition to trump the Bible. Turns out, there were….
  3. I learned valuable lessons about the process of recovering obedience in an area where I — and my people — had once been so thoroughly disobedient that we couldn’t even imagine what obedience would look like.

That third area is the one I want to focus on today. Let me briefly sketch what happened when I became a Psalm-singing Christian, and then I’ll pull some lessons out of that experience. In upcoming posts, I hope to look at how that experience might apply to recovering healing ministry.

As I said, the starting point was a relatively innocuous observation: three times in the New Testament, we are instructed that we ought to sing the psalms. It does not say that we should sing the biblical Psalms exclusively, but it clearly means we ought to sing at least the biblical Psalms. And as a leader in my commmunity, I had a responsibility to recover this obedience, first for myself, and then for the community I led. Which meant we were going to have to introduce Psalm-singing into our congregational worship. (To be clear, the Bible does not say we must sing Psalms in congregational worship, but since that is where Christians learn to sing, it was a matter of practical necessity. And anyway, it just makes sense — if we become a Psalm-singing people, then wouldn’t it be natural for us to sing the Psalms when we come together to sing?)

My first problem was, how do I even do that? When I open my Bible to the Psalms, nothing I see there suggests that I would sing them. There’s no music. The lyrics don’t look like lyrics, or have a rhythm to them. I could handle re-translating the Hebrew into something more like song lyrics…barely…but even if I could handle the lyrics, I’m not a songwriter. I clearly didn’t have the resources to do this all by myself. So I began to look around for help.

I found out that not all the branches of the Church had forsaken Psalm-singing. Some of the older traditions had retained a tradition of chanting the Psalms from very early times. It doesn’t sound anything like a song to modern ears, and I was certainly not going to be able to introduce it into congregational worship, but it was a start. Some other traditions recovered Psalm-singing during the Protestant Reformation: I discovered the Genevan Psalter, the Scots Free Church, and some others. Some of these traditions refused to use musical instruments. Some of them were committed to singing the Psalms exclusively. I disagreed with them on both of these points, but what they had to offer was still helpful. I didn’t need to agree with them on everything to profit from their obedience in an area where I had been disobedient.

I quickly discovered that I was not a good judge of what was going to work and what wasn’t. Some of what these other communities had to offer was a terrible fit for us — musically bad, poor translations, or just not singable. I mostly discovered what wouldn’t work by trying it. In the beginning, everything we did was clumsy. Let’s be honest — we were bad at this. Of course we were — we’ never done it before. We had to just keep going and trust that God would bless our faithfulness. He did, and we got better. Over time, we gained skill, and noticed that some things worked better than others — so we dumped what wasn’t working, and kept what was.

Over time, God blessed our faithfulness. God gave me access to some good musicians, and together we began to develop a corpus of singable work. We began to gain some strategies for consistently getting good music. One of the better ones was finding time-tested folk tunes, then translating Psalm lyrics to match the meter of the folk tune. We got some really good, really singable music that way. Over time, we began to be good judges (in advance) of what would work and what wouldn’t. We still don’t have the whole Psalter rendered in good poetry and good music (yet), but we have about a third of it in a form that’s poetically good, understandable, and singable. And we keep adding to the body of work.

Coming back to healing ministry, here are some lessons from the Psalm-singing experience that I expect to apply:

  1. I can’t do this all myself. I don’t know what I’m doing. My whole tradition doesn’t know what it’s doing.
  2. Our first attempts at obedience are going to be bad. (And some of them have been!) We will be clumsy and unskilled and ineffective. But God will be kind to us, and we will get better with practice.
  3. It’s not enough to cover myself with a verse and say I’m being obedient; it has to actually work. In the beginning I will be a terrible judge of what will work, so I’m just going to have to try different things and see. But I need to pay attention to the results.
  4. “It’s not working” is not a reason to give up. We can’t get more effective at something we’re not even trying. We keep going, and trust God to reward our obedience with increased skill and discernment. I’m not going to pray, “God, please show me how to be awesome at this, and then I will start trying to obey.” I’m going to pray, “God, I’m trying as best I can to be obedient. Please bless my honest attempts and guide me into more skillful obedience.”
  5. Not every branch of the Church’s family tree will be as sterile as mine in this area. Other Christians will have retained or rediscovered obedience, and they will have things that can help me. Those Christians will have their own areas of disobedience, misunderstanding, legalism, and so on. But I don’t have to agree with them on everything to profit from their obedience in this area.
  6. Not all the resources I need will be inside the Church. Folk culture tends to preserve things that work, even in areas where the Church isn’t really paying any attention.

There are probably some other lessons in there, too, but these are the ones that occur to me right now.


The Real History of Modern Yoga

17 May 2018

As we engage the subject of Christian physicality, we will unavoidably run into the question of mind-body practices, and what Christians may and may not participate in. In my experience, yoga is one of the first practices people ask about. Pro-yoga marketers, various Hindu sects, and yoga’s Christian despisers all aggressively promote the idea that yoga is an ancient Hindu practice. In fact, this is not true at all, as I will explain below. For further information, read Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Elizabeth De Michelis, A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism, and N. E. Sjoman, The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, or take a look at a recent BBC article

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What you get in a yoga class at your local fitness club is not an ancient Hindu practice at all. That is a myth, created in the early 20th century by Indian nationalists and anti-colonialists. In order to understand how the myth grew so popular, we have to grasp a little of what it’s like to live in a colonized nation. When the British colonized India, they brought vastly superior technology — railroads, steam engines, telegraph, better ships, firearms, and so on. India developed a desperate desire to “catch up” with the Western powers, to modernize. Indians began to dress and talk like Westerners, go to college, learn engineering and other technical disciplines, and so on. All that was Western became synonymous with progress, and all that was Indian became synonymous with backwardness. Now that’ll give you a serious inferiority complex, and people can’t live like that for an extended period of time. Eventually the undiscriminating worship of all things Western provoked a backlash, and there was a great desire to point out the ways in which Indian culture was superior and had something to offer to the West.

Part of what the West had brought to India was the physical culture movement, very popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Observers from both cultures noticed that in general, Indians were physically weak by comparison with their Western counterparts. Indian reformers set out to change that through physical exercise. They were aided in the effort by the YMCA, which had branches throughout India and taught a variety of physical disciplines like Pilates, Swedish Vital Gymnastics and other physical culture regimens popular at that time in the West.

At that time, “yoga” was understood to be one of the six orthodox paths to enlightenment in Hinduism, and usually had little if anything to do with physical posture. “Yoga” literally means “yoking” and referred to yoking one’s own consciousness to the divine. There were numerous yoga practices — the yoga of good deeds (karma yoga), the yoga of devotion (bhakti yoga), the yoga of knowledge (jnana yoga), etc. Some of the meditation traditions included instructions to take a certain posture for meditation to achieve certain ends — one text, the Geranda Samhita, has 30 or so postures which are alleged to help attain certain benefits. On the other hand, other forms of yoga taught nothing to do with postures. Popular yogi and lecturer Vivekananda, for example, denounced teachers of postures as hucksters and carnival performers.

In short, modern postural yoga — what happens in a fitness center yoga class, where you might move through dozens of postures over the course of an hour-long session — does not seem to have much documentable precedent as a religious exercise in classical Hinduism. It was created, and recently — mostly by Krishnamacharya in Mysore. While he never traveled to the U.S. and few people have heard of him, his students K. Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga Vinyasa), B. K. S. Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga), Indra Devi and T. K. V. Desikachar (Viniyoga) are almost entirely responsible for the popularity of what we now call “yoga” in the West. Even the relatively few yoga lineages that do not begin with Krishnamacharya are certainly influenced by his legacy.

While modern postural yoga has little precedent in classical Hinduism, it does have some precursors in indigenous Indian practices. To find the precursors, we have to leave Hindu meditation behind and look to India’s wrestling tradition. India has a long tradition of producing superb wrestlers, and in texts that describe their training we see some indigenous exercises along that line, including the danda exercises — sophisticated pushup variations — that Krishnamacharya brought into his yoga program as the now-ubiquitous “sun salutation.” Similar exercises are preserved in Kalaripayyat, the indigenous martial art of Kerala in southern India. Swedish Vital Gymnastics and the other regimens of the western physical culture movement are also ancestors of modern postural yoga.

Of course, this sort of exercise is actually pretty common through world culture. From the wresting conditioning of the Persian Zurkaneh to the whip and saber exercises of the Cossacks to the neigong exercises of the Chinese to the djurus, lankas and kembaggan of the Indonesian Pentjak-Silat players, exercise sequences that work the whole body evenly and promote coordination, whole-body looseness and balance are found around the world. The routines look somewhat different from culture to culture, but they’re all designed to do the same thing: cultivate a relaxed, supple body that moves gracefully, freely and strongly through its whole range of motion. (As a Christian, that’s a goal I can get behind. I believe God made the body to do exactly that.)

But back to yoga. What happened to produce the yoga class down at your local gym? In early 20th-century India, the anticolonial backlash was well under way. Reformers were seeking ways to bring India up to par with the Western nations, and at the same time proclaim the benefits of things that were uniquely Indian. Working as just such a reformer, Krishnamacharya gathered up various exercises from European physical culture movements, combined them with British army exercises, classical Indian wrestling exercises and meditation postures from old texts, and dubbed the result “yoga.” A few others did the same.

By calling their practices “yoga” and linking them to a liberal helping of Hindu religion and philosophy, they were seeking to market their physical culture programs as uniquely Indian and suitably ancient. Because they could point at a few old texts that teach some sort of posture practice — the Geranda Samhita, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and so on — they had enough historical cover to give their efforts a patina of respectability, and they were working in an environment where everybody wanted to believe that it was true. The result of this melange of European exercises, physical culture ethos, meditation postures and Hindu philosophy is what contemporary academics call Modern Postural Yoga. It was spread through the YMCAs and other channels, and became fairly popular in India.

Meanwhile in the West, the physical culture movement all but died. (Classical Pilates — originally known as Controlology — is virtually the only modern-day survivor of the Western physical culture movement.) What remained of the physical culture movement transformed into the fitness industry, and great emphasis was placed on simplicity and isolated movements. Exercises requiring careful attention and complex coordination fell by the wayside in favor of simple exercises like bicep curls, leg extensions and lat pulls.

Yoga (especially in its philosophical, non-physical forms) had been slowly trickling into the West, but the physical exercise that we mean when we say “yoga” today didn’t really begin to be popular here until the 1960s. (Indra Devi was promoting yoga here long before that, and taught such luminaries as Greta Garbo and Marylin Monroe, but teachers were rare in those days, and yoga was still virtually unknown.) By the 60s, modern yoga had been incubating in India for decades, and we had long since forgotten our own roots in the physical culture movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In keeping with the way modern postural yoga had been marketed in India, the yoga gurus of the 60s and 70s marketed yoga here as an ancient Hindu practice of health and spirituality, and Americans bought it.

Over time, Americans who had no interest in Hinduism saw the physical benefits of this kind of gymnastic exercise, requiring careful attention and complex coordination. It improved balance, mental focus, coordination and concentration, helped people relax, improved posture, and much more. These folks recognized that there was a market for this kind of exercise, quite apart from the Hinduism, and began to promote it simply as good exercise. Which it is. This is where the yoga class at your local fitness club comes from.

Now a Christian comes along, looks at that class at the gym, and says, “We had Christian aerobics back in the 80s. Why can’t we have Christian yoga now?” Good question.


Touched by an Angel

10 May 2018

In Daniel 10, we read a fascinating account of spiritual ministry. Daniel has mourned for His people and prayed for three weeks. At the end of the three weeks, an angelic being confronts him in a vision (the other men with him were terrified, but saw nothing).

As the angel began to speak, Daniel lost all strength and fell on his face to the ground. The angel touched him the first time, which made him tremble. The angel explained his presence there, and why he had been delayed for three weeks. All this while, Daniel is on his face, trembling, unable to speak.

Then an angel touched his lips, and he was able to speak. He told the angel that the vision he’s seen has so overwhelmed him that he’s unable to function. “Then again one having the likeness of a man touched me and strengthened me.” (Daniel 10:18)

Daniel tells the angel he’s been strengthened, and the angel begins to tell Daniel more about the future, which is found in Daniel 11.

For me, the point of interest here is how the angel (a “ministering spirit sent to minister to those who will inherit salvation,” as Hebrews puts it) ministered to Daniel. He touched him. This particular ministering spirit may or may not have even had a physical body (recall that those who were with Daniel couldn’t see the angel he saw). But this spirit being made contact with Daniel, and had a physical effect each time.

The first touch made Daniel tremble; the second touch on his mouth made him able to speak; the third strengthened him. I have seen touch have these effects, and I have directly administered two of the three.

So it was fun to see affirmation of what God has done through me in the Scriptures. Not that I had doubts — I take a “if you can’t believe the words, believe the works” approach to the surprising things God does — but it’s fun to see it in a verse. And useful, for the skeptics among us.