Thursday, March 20, 2008

Bringing the Gospel to a Buddhist Near You

I’m flipping through the pages of this month’s Christianity Today (yes, I get the magazine, but only for the pictures), and I am caught by a lovely photograph of a Buddhist monk. I don’t fully realize it is a monk until I have flipped to the next page, and then the thought hits me, “What is that photo doing in this magazine?”

I flip back and gaze with respect at what appears to be a Southeast Asian Buddhist elder sitting on a rattan bench and holding a twisted black wooden walking stick. Then my eyes scan to the bottom of the narrow photo to read: “There are more than 6,000 people groups in the world still waiting to hear the Gospel. Our purpose is clear: Reach every last one of them. Want to join us?”

The ad is for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. At first, given the photo, I thought the Southeastern in the school’s name referred to Asia, but the school is actually in Texas. Anyway, the question is compelling.

Do I want to bring the Gospel to these 6,000 people groups? Before I answer, let me be clear: I don’t really know what a “people group” is, which is a bit depressing since there seem to be 6000 of them, but putting that aside, I do admit that I would like to bring the Gospel to this Buddhist monk.

Why? Because he might give me fresh new insight into the Gospel that my more conventional Christian friends cannot offer.

I assume that great spiritual teachers like Jesus speak a universal and timeless truth, and do so in the cultural currency of their day. This means that while it is vital to our understanding of Jesus that we place him in the context of first-century Roman occupied Jewish Palestine, limiting Jesus’ message to first-century Roman occupied Jewish Palestine alone makes it impossible for us to hear his larger message for all humanity. [For those interested in hearing this message I suggest reading the following authors: Marcus Borg, John Spong, John Crossan, Andrew Harvey, Matthew Fox, and Cynthia Bourgeault.]

Chances are this Buddhist monk is not up on the latest historical Jesus scholarship, so that when we bring the Gospel to him he will respond to Jesus’ message from his Buddhist training and wisdom. I suspect that in doing so he will reveal layers of meaning and insight that might otherwise go undetected.

So I want to thank Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary for inviting me to bring the Gospel to this monk and the other members of his particular people group. I only hope that when we do, we will have the grace, wisdom, and humility to listen to what he thinks it means.

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