Recently I attended an “Urban Consultation” (at a location that I choose not to disclose here in this blog) concerning missiological issues in the Urban Context. I was asked to respond to a paper; which I did. But I was surprised, even hugely disappointed, with the negative responses I got to my response, where the participants said that I was excessively negative and I missed the point. Well, I admit that I have a tendency to be negative; especially my tone tends to be argumentative or confrontational. However, I stand by my critique, and feel it must be heard.

To protect the identity of the paper presenter, I am simply referring to him as “the author”. Also note that my response was actually to his “presentation” which was very different from what his pre-distributed paper was. Nevertheless, my paper comments will give an idea of what I felt about his “suggestions”, to which I hope to focus.

I must add a note that I have worked as a “secular” professional and so I believe I know at least some of the complexities of working in the urban workforce. It is that experience that also helps me make some of the comments I am making.

Ultimately, I am posting my response here not to discredit the author who remains nameless, nor am I presenting a defence of myself. I already admit that I tend to be overly negative in tone. However I hope to bring out certain issues for the complexity of mission in the urban setting and urge scholars and practitioners alike to think more deeply about “HOW” we intend to make an impact with them.

The following is my written response, copied and pasted (with a few references modified or deleted).

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Response to the paper entitled, “Transforming Indian Cities Through Transforming Intelligentsia”

Strengths/contributions

The author offers a refreshing perspective to an age-old debate. He does not want to sit on the proverbial arm-chair and say we should impact the intelligentsia, but rather he attempts to offer a way to actually do it.

After identifying the middle-class demographic, and a postmodern philosophical worldview that he believes undergirds it, the author maps out the spheres of influence, namely arts, business, church, media, education, family and government, which all need to be impacted if we want to see India transformed. The author provides a rationale for Christian involvement for each of these spheres and makes a strong case that unless these spheres are impacted, the intelligentsia will continue to ignore that Christian message.

The author then goes on to identify the principles of communication that govern Christian interactions with the intelligentsia, and urges for multiple approaches with respect to the complexity involved. The author also correctly urges that “reaching the intellectuals in India should be… intentional.”

In all this, the author does a fair service not only to this conference, but also to the furtherance of discussions about mission amongst India’s intellectual elite in India’s cities.

Issues that need further clarity: definition of intelligentsia and the importance of postmodernism

I must admit, though, that I was a little confused about the author’s terminology. The author says that he wants to impact the intelligentsia but fails to define exactly what he means; it is not clear whether he is referring to the middle-class, the Hindu intellectuals or even the educated urban elite. Of course the author does say that the “middle-class is closely related to the Intelligentsia” (1) but the closest he comes to defining what he means by intelligentsia is the “thought leaders” who control the world (1).  This is too general, and yet, if true, why does the author spend so much time profiling the middle class (2-6) if they are not the intelligentsia? I would think the author’s paper would improve if he were to define who he means by the “intelligentsia” and profile their precise demographic.

Of course, the author does attempt to show one important marker of the intelligentsia by saying that postmodernism has affected them (7). Yet we are thrown off by his earlier assertion that “The intelligentsia in India cannot be termed modern or post-modern as a majority thinks in ancient thought patters” (2). I was therefore confused about the exact relevance of postmodernism to his paper, especially since there are many Indian intellectuals who also believe that postmodernism is not relevant to India.

By the time the author introduces the idea of postmodernism in Indian intellegentsia, he is probably referring to Hindu intellectuals. If Hindu intellectuals are his focus, then I find it surprising that the author fails to point to Vedic sources, that pre-date postmodern literature by over two-millennia, that inform what the author calls postmodern thinking in India. It is not enough to say that “post modernism… suits the pre-modern Brahmanism” (7), which suggests that the intellectuals use postmodernism to justify their Vedas. But I think a case can be made that in postmodernism many Hindu intellectuals have found a philosophical stance quite similar to what their own ancient sources propagated; ie. vedas justify the use of postmodernism.

The order is important especially if we are looking for the true philosophical undergirdings of Hindu intellectuals; is it vedas first, or postmodernism first, or a bit of both. The author rightly scratches at the surface of this debate, yet leaves us hoping for further clarity in this important area of research.

Areas that need further strengthening: methods for change

In terms of his proposal, the author wants to “redeem all the mind moulders” through evangelism (7). Yet his idea of evangelism is not a simplistic gospel message and rightly extends to the involvement in the redemption of art, business, media, education et al.

Keeping in mind the ultimate goal; transforming cities by transforming intelligentsia, the author’s shift to institutions rather than people can be justified by thinking that transforming institutions, like art, business, media, government etc, will lead to a transformation of intellectuals, which will then lead to a transformation of cities.

Nevertheless,  the author’s method of redeeming these spheres (institutions) are naive at best. For instance, he urges the redemption of the “arts through the gospel” (8) by creating something credible. Basically this means having Christian themes of love, immortality etc expressed through the arts. While such a method may have worked when the choices of art were limited, and its influence greater, in today’s reality no art work that has universal acceptance. There are multiple views of what is beauty, and worse, there are multiple choices of art forms. If we were to spread the message of Christ in an art form, the amount of choices (channels, cinema halls, galleries, novels) today simply means that people can turn a deaf ear to the Christian message; literally change the channel from the Christian message. What in reality happens is that the Christian influence in art forms, whether overt (Left Behind series), or covert (Narnia series), are easy to switch off, or even get misinterpreted.

Regarding the business as mission model, a similar naivety is expressed. In the specific call to operate a food joint near colleges to evangelise assumes that yours is the only food joint (dhaba) in the vicinity (for instance in Delhi University). In reality, a student has access to hundreds of food joints, and it is likely that students would go to where they are least bothered. Furthermore, this does not take into account the cost of operations and hard work required just to keep a high-cost-low-returns kind of business near colleges. How much genuine evangelism can be done in an intense business environment where people want to get away from thinking?

A third example, using Christian schools as mission grounds to convert students, fails to take into account recent ethical debates concerning indoctrination of children and teacher abuse. Furthermore, this can (and will certainly) open Christian schools for government censure and fundamentalist attack. Is this not akin to putting innocent children at risk?

The author also refers to the media as neither divine or devlish and says Christians can use the media as a “powerful tool” (10). Yet he fails to recognise the current reality that the popular media, even Indian media today, is controlled by business interests that has replaced its ideals of democracy with the ideals of global economy. Certainly such idealism must be abandoned where it is not enough to say that the “media has played a key role in grooming politicians” because of the counter reality that politicians have become adept in using the media for political gain.

All I want to say that while the author has rightly attempted to draft practical steps to influence the intellectuals, yet his practical suggestions are naive about the difficulties and impractical for implementation.

Certainly this paper and its proposals can benefit from clearer thinking about who the focus group is. There is also need to draw out the precise demographic of these Indian intellectuals. Once this is done, it will invariably lead to a sense of what actually influences these people. To put it practically, a quick question and counter proposal will do: do these Indian intellectuals (and by this we could mean the educated elite, not educated middle class), watch more popular cinema or read more newspapers? If the answer is likely to be the latter, then our attention to influence the intelligentsia must be in newspapers and not cinema. This can in effect lead us to think of practical steps to get the Christian message in newspapers to reach the intellectuals.

Yet the onus to answer come up with answers to these questions lies not only with the author alone but with us all. The author has rightly drawn attention to a problem; and we are all challenged to answer the call.

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