Friday, April 25, 2014

Dispatches from Gouda

I cannot believe that it is over already. It is Saturday and I am on my way back to Grand Rapids, Michigan after a week (or so) of travel in the Netherlands. I have truly enjoyed Dutch hospitality, met great people and learned a lot about Christian higher education in this secular nation. I have visited Christian university of applied sciences in Ede (CHE), Driestar Educatief in Gouda,VIAA (formerly Reformed University) in Zwolle, and Protestant Theological University in Groningen with a presence also in Amsterdam. Two things stood out for me from these visits: first, the unique role played by the state whereby every institution is fully supported by the government in terms of finances. This means that the Christian university gets 100% funding from the government in the same way a public university does. And yet these Christian universities are able to hire only Christian teachers and staff. They are, however open to students from all faith backgrounds. Second, is the new practice of applied research in these Christian universities where there are paid research positions (lectorates) charged with conducting research that is directly tied to the teaching and curriculum of the institution. The research results are then brought back into the classroom, office and curriculum of the institution in order to improve their offerings. Unlike research in research universities, these institutions carry out research that is directly tied to what and how they teach so that it can improve their work. Of course research universities do some of this research but there is also research to enhance one's standing among peers or research to advance certain theories. The kind of research I have found at the Christian universities is applied. Indeed, it is expected that the research carried out is applied back to the work of the teachers, students, and administrators at the institution. I find this very useful for advancing the work that IAPCHE institutions are involved in. Coffee seems to be like the air we breath--it is the one constant in all offices and homes (along with tea) so I am guessing I might want to see how coffee and tea growers from Kenya contribute to this national addiction😃. That is a project for another time. 
Oh and I must say I enjoyed the food as well especially this brown piece here
called Kroket which I know is not very good for my health but tastes great. 
And of course some asparagus (white), vegetables, potatoes, and meat as seen here:
But above all is the cheese. I think I might become a little picky about my cheese when I next visit our local grocery store. And I guess I will not mind bread with butter and a slice of cheese on top for breakfast. I love learning from other cultures and grateful for these opportunities. It's time for breakfast. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Dispatches from the Netherlands

April 21 2014

I arrived here at 11:25AM local time from Detroit for a week’s visit of our IAPCHE member institutions. I have always travelled through Amsterdam but never quite visited the Netherlands so this is a good trip for me. My colleagues in the Netherlands have put together a good plan for my visit. After clearing with immigration I went downstairs in the Schiphol Airport baggage claim area to pick up my suitcase and then went through the green line for nothing to declare customs check. I walked into the hall way where I saw a few people with names of passengers they were waiting for but not the kind of numbers one would see in, say, an East African airport. I had been given good instructions on how to navigate my way around so I went to look for a train ticket to Utrecht where I am spending my first night. I found a train ticket machine and followed the steps but it turned out my transaction did not go through.
I reverted to the more trusted method, a real person behind a counter. That too did not work as the teller told me she could only take cash or use a bankcard with a chip. I did not have cash or a card with a chip. I asked her where I could find an ATM and she directed me. I withdrew some cash and went back to her since she had already printed my train ticket to Utrecht. I paid for it and went to the train platform to wait for my train. Boarded train along with other people many of who had landed at Schiphol as well. I found a seat and made myself comfortable.
I even realized I had access to Internet on the train so I read some email messages since I had half an hour of travel time from Schiphol to Utrecht. 20 minutes into the ride the train conductor walks in and checks all passenger tickets. He gets to me and checks my ticket then pauses a little and says to me, “you are seating in first class and you have a second class ticket.” Ooops! I told him I did not know which was which since I have never rode a train in the Netherlands before. He waves me to stay after asking if I am going to Utrecht. As you can see on the right I have been traveling a little while but cannot complain having my first class experience. Next time I have to find out what train car I belong to before boarding because I don’t think I can get that lucky again. Alighted at Utrecht Centraal station and followed the instructions given to me to get to the NH Hotel in Utrecht. I already like the hotel (see my room on the right) and will enjoy my time here for the day. Tomorrow I head out to Ede, the following day to Zwolle, then Groningen, and end up in Gouda. I guess that is a good sense of parts of the Netherlands. First thing I did when I got into my room was to get set up to use the Free Wi-FI on the hotel which is quite good. It seems like this connectivity is the most important way of life for those of us with the abilities to travel and have access to computer, smart phones, and tablets that can use the Internet. It is quite interesting how these places all seem to be so much the same despite being so far apart. I do not speak Dutch but I seem to get around pretty well in English, including asking for directions from a person working at a food kiosk in the train station. English has truly become the international lingua franca. I remember being able to navigate my short visit to Hungary in English as well. And then the rooms all seem to use plastic entry keys. Is this what globalization looks like? Let's wait and see what the other days bring.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

When is Prayer Misused?

When is Prayer Misplaced?
I recently picked up fellow anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann’s much regarded book titled When God talks Back (2012) in which she seeks to establish how Americans at Vineyard Church, which she has studied for a number of years, “can hear the voice of God replying to their questions, even the most mundane and everyday.” Tanya is not alone in the quest to understand Christianity from an anthropological perspective. Christianity, a subject left out of anthropology’s study of societies and cultures for a long time, has recently become an important topic that has even led to the emergence of an area referred to as the “anthropology of Christianity,” complete with specialists (think here of Joel Robbins) and a very active bibliography blog ( that posts entries almost every week. So I got wondering about what it takes to study Christianity as a Christian and found myself going back to some of my own qualms with the way sometimes the faith is operationalized in our daily lives or the ways in which people may attribute Christianity to certain cultural practices that (in my humble opinion) seem quite unrelated to the faith itself. I want to explore one such practice here—the ways sometimes prayer or what some call “giving things to God” can be misplaced. I ask that as you read this bear with me here before you start thinking that I am bashing my own faith. While we may agree with some observers that prayer is central to the every day life of Christians, we might want to critically look at how some of the things we want to “put to prayer” say a lot about our willingness to allow reason and common sense to fly away than really about matters of faith. Let me share some examples. 
I am aware of two cases in 2014 and 2012 where Pentecostal pastors in the US southern States (Kentucky and West Virginia) where snake-handling pastors have died of snake bites after believing that they will be healed of those bites through prayer.

In June 2003 members of staff from Ghana’s national airline, Ghana Airways, held a “prayer vigil” as their desperate response to the ailing corporation that had continually been facing many financial and management challenges. They brought in a prominent Pentecostal preacher to spiritually “heal” and “deliver” the public corporation from the evils besetting it. As Ghanaian scholar J Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu has shown in his paper titled,“"’Christ Is the Answer": What Is the Question?’ A Ghana Airways Prayer Vigil and Its Implications for Religion, Evil and Public Space,” there were many indications that the airline was run poorly. It was leasing old jets that were not fuel efficient, could not keep regular schedules, had rude counter clerks, and over-issuance of complimentary tickets. The airline management had also been politicized and there were claims of corruption in its operations. How then was prayer going to respond to these matters?

Further south in Tanzania there was a parliamentary debate focused on the country’s 2012 national budget. Honorable Rev. Peter Msigwa who represents Iringa (Central Tanzania, Southwest of Dar es Salaam) was contributing to the government’s proposed budget for the fiscal year 2012/2013 when one of his colleagues mentioned the need for prayer as a way of responding to the socioeconomic challenges facing the nation. In response, Hon Msigwa (right) said,

“I see no economic theory that states, if you want to solve economic problems you pray. Even Paul says whoever does not work should not eat [He was referring to 2 Thessalonians 3:10], not that he/she be prayed for, he/she is denied food, but the contributor says we should pray for him. As a reverend we pray for fornicators, those caught with other people’s wives. As a reverend we pray for those who are possessed by evil spirits. What we are doing here is apply an economic principle: there are more consumers than there are producers so we have to produce more. We should find ways of producing more. You don’t have to pray about this.”[1]

Does this worldview of spiritual causality pervade many societies or is it an isolated case? Why are people resigning to prayer instead of seeking practical ways of solving their problems that they can see the real causes? Why can't prayer be accompanied by other actions that help lead the person to the desired goal? Is prayer supposed to be the ONLY solution? Kenya’s award-winning photographer and activist Boniface Mwangi (right), has sought to provide an answer to this question. He says that he got involved in activism because he learned from his own experiences the need to be proactive in making the changes he wants in society. He gives an example of how he often observed his mother disappear every few weeks into Karura forest (near Nairobi) and return tired and famished. When he would ask her where she had been she would respond that she had been in the forest praying for Moi (then president) to die. Mwangi notes that his mother died in 2000 and Moi is still alive. His mother’s response to the hard days of Moi’s rule, he adds, was prayer because she was afraid of being arrested, being detained or tortured so all she did was pray. She died a poor woman who was upset with the system. So he thought instead of just going to pray, which he does, he decided he has to do something more because his mother prayed but there was no action and so she did not get the response she wanted. He decided if he is going to pray about something he also is going to act.[2] He has since been involved in many forms of civil protest against members of parliament’s greed that led to their exorbitant salaries when poverty continues to grip many Kenyans, against corruption, and against electoral malpractices among other social challenges of the day.

I do not know what to make of these stories other than wonder when does one decide that prayer allows one to use interventions available or as I would see it, made available to one for use, instead of making what is clearly a dangerous and many times irrational decisions. Why would someone want to assume that God does not work through biomedicine that one gets at a hospital for snake bites, or through economic theory that shows the specific gaps created by specific social and cultural practices that hinder a company’s profitability? How do I emphasize the value of prayer and yet look at the reality of what we have been given to work with?

[1] video of his presentation (mostly in Kiswahili) can be watched here
[2] Video interview with Larry Madowo of Nation Television’s #Trend found here posted online Mar 3, 2013 and accessed December 3, 2013.