What’s the Difference Between “Contextualization” and . . . ?

Originally posted on jacksonwu:

I sometimes get asked to distinguish a few key missiological terms.

These words often appear in missiological and theological literature. Various books and articles go into more detail than I do in this post. Nevertheless, I hope this offers some clarification without getting too technical.

contextualization (meaning?)

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Splitting the Great Commandment

Quote from Practical Theologian Dennis McCann, in a broader quote from Emmanuel Y. Lartey

“McCann argues that there are ‘two demons’ that plague the efforts of Christian activists, namely, on the one hand, ‘excessive spiritualization’ and, on the other, ‘politicization.’ Each of these is an evasion of the demands of Christian social witness triggered by the ‘ambiguous reality of social action.’

‘Excessive spiritualization’ does this by exchanging ambiguity for the certainties of a conventional religious righteousness– like the rich young man who went away empty when Jesus commanded him to sell all and give to the poor (Mark 10:17-31). ‘Politicization,’ evades the demands of the gospel by doing the same with an unconventional political righteousness– like the disciple who, when the woman anointed Jesus with oil of nard, protested that the perfume might have been sold and the money given to these same poor (Mark 14:3-9)

<Emmanuel Lartey in “In Living Color: An Intercultural Approach to Pastoral Care and Counseling”, p. 134-135. Referencing quote from Dennis P. McCann in “Practical Theology and Social Action: Or What can the 1980s learn from the 1960s”, 1983, p. 109>

One can look at these two failed roads as the practical splitting of the Great Commandment.

Road #1.  Excessive Spirituality (or excessive piety). This is the first half of the Great Commandment without consideration of the second half. “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ This could be seen as the spirituality of religious leaders of Jesus’ day (or at least those leaders that Jesus singled out for critique). These people focus excessively on the conventional standards of spirituality. It could be how often one prays, how often one congregates with fellow believers, how one gives to one’s religion, who one fasts, or otherwise.  In the New Testament, this could be seen as the “righteousness of the scribes and the pharisees” One can think of this as the HIGH ROAD.

Road #2.  Political Righteousness. This is the second half of the Great Commandment with little consideration of the first half.  ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ This is social action built on the apparent needs of the people. In the New Testament, this could be seen as the “righteousness of the zealots and the sicarii.” One can think of this as the LOW ROAD.

Today we see “religious” people who are, as the saying goes, “so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good.” They cloister themselves in their own world of approved spiritualistic excesses. But today we see people who do simply horrible things in the name of their faith because they are trying “help the people.”

We need the MIDDLE ROAD. Not simply mixing the two but letting or devotion to God give us a heart for the people. And having a heart for the people (the loving personal creations of God) point us back to love for God. Ultimately, we need the heart and mind of Christ to bring these together.

Theological Ducks, Part #2

Part #1 looked at perspective regarding culture. Instead of rehashing… please READ IT.

Now let’s apply this to Theology. Theology is a system of symbols and concepts shared (typically) by a group. So while theology may not constitute a culture, it certainly constitutes a major aspect of a culture (or sub-culture).

Like culture, theology is commonly distorted from an external (cat or etic) perspective.

Like culture, theology loses perspective when it only has an internal (fish or emic) perspective.

Theology is best understood by bringing together etic and emic perspectives (the “duck”).

Of course, the fish and cat views go together. One sees one’s own theology as very sound  while the other as clearly messed up. That is not abnormal… but when this view is based on limited cross-theological exposure (or a monotheological perspective) the viewpoint is not particularly trustworthy.

What might some evidences be of a Monotheological viewpoint… that is, hampered by a fish/cat perspective rather than a duck perspective.

1.  Those who describe their theological viewpoint as the “Biblical Viewpoint.” I recall reading the writing of a Calvinistic writer who said that another term for Calvinistic is “Biblical.” It really doesn’t take a lot of reading of the Bible to discover that God’s revelation on the process of salvation is “muddy”… like a river. Anyone who says their view is “Biblical” suggesting that the other views are “Unbiblical” simply has not really dealt with the whole Bible fairly. I would argue that an Arminian who described their view as the “Biblical” one has also fallen into the same trap. The issue of God’s sovereignty versus freedom of creation is also muddy.

I recall listening to a Prosperity Gospel guy here in the Philippines say, “I know some of you won’t like this,” (the teachings of the Prosperity Gospel), “but it is simply what the Bible teaches.” I might argue that he was correct if my Bible only had the books of Deuteronomy and Proverbs. But once you start bringing in other books, this confidence rapidly becomes questionable.  Admittedly, Liberation Theology can also be guilty of the same myopia. One really needs to bring these views together to grow from the perspectives.

The fact is that most Christian Theology could be described as Biblical… at least in some sense. Buddhist theology can’t really be described as Biblical, since the Bible is not used as revelatory material for its theology. Islamic and Mormon theology should really not be described as Biblical theology either. Although they “respect” the Bible as Holy, they don’t really utilize it as primary source material for their respective theologies. When a person says their theology is “Biblical,” they are usually saying that “people who interpret the Bible in a similar manner to myself tend to agree with me.” Of course, that tends to be a tautology.

2.  When one describes “contextual theologies” or “third world theologies” as being qualitatively different from “real theology.” This is, in fact, the essence of monoculturalism. When one is unable to see the cultural biases inherent in one’s theological perspective, that is monocultural, monotheoloical. Some give special praise to “systematic” theology. But systematizing one’s theology into formal topics and propositional statements may not be superior to metaphors and narratives valued in a different culture.

Some are bothered that “contextual theology” is heterodox. Of course, they can be, but ALL THEOLOGY IS CONTEXTUAL.  All theology bridges divine revelation (for example, special revelations of the Holy Bible and Jesus Christ and the general revelations of creation and history) with a cultural group. Good theology is contextualized to that culture… it is contextual. But presumably not all theology is heterodox.

3.  When one is excessively involved with apologetics. This sounds counterintuitive. To do apologetics or debate, one needs to understand the other side… to be prepared to argue with them. The problem is that in debate, there is a tendency for “BIAS CONFIRMATION.” (See THIS ARTICLE.) The two people on opposite sides tend to move further apart in their beliefs than closer together. In fact, there is a tendency to stereotype or create caricatures of other beliefs… much the same as a monocultural or monotheological view. This is not universal. Some apologists make a genuine attempt to understand and interact with other viewpoints. But those who are simply focused on WINNING will tend to miss out on the most.

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For myself… I hold to an essentially evangelical theology. I am not suggesting some odd syncretization of beliefs, or suggesting that all interpretations are equally valid. But I am suggesting that one must be open to learning through different perspectives. For example, the insights from SHAME/HONOR or COLLECTIVIST societies really add in understanding God’s Word. I am not suggesting that they negate GUILT/FORGIVENESS or INDIVIDUALIST perspectives. Rather the two support each other. The Triumphalistic theologies that have come out of Europe and especially the United States (including some Evangelical theologies) REALLY need the added perspective of the disempowered and persecuted Christians in some other parts of the world.

Missions (and the church in general) needs theological ducks.

Theological Ducks. Part #1

Imagine that you are walking along the bank of a river. You look into the river… but you have difficulty seeing much beyond the surface. Sure, you can see the surface of the river. You can see the ripples on the surface. But below that is rather obscured. Reflections of light off of the surface obscure the view. Refraction of light as it is affected by the water and the ripples on the surface distort objects below. Finally, sediments in the water absorb light and make it murky, further making it difficult to see below the surface. To see clearly what is below the surface, one really needs to get into the water

river.Cultural River

Now, imagine that you are not looking at a river, but looking at a culture. You are an outsider to a culture. You have no problem seeing the surface of that culture. Such surface things may be what people in the culture wear, how they sound, what they eat, and so forth. However, deeper issues within the culture are hard to see and are distorted.

As an outsider, it is hard to understand their values and family systems. It is difficult to see clearly their aspirations, their fears, or their adaptive mechanisms. To really understand what is going on in the culture, one needs to immerse oneself in that culture.

<NOTE:  This is mostly from a chapter of the book that I am MOSTLY done with… “Ministry in Diversity.” The ideas here in Part 1 are to a large extent from Dr. Dan Russell, although I not totally sure where he got them from. But then I will add a final section that connects the metaphor for culture to theology. That part is not in the book.>

Returning to the river metaphor, suppose you want to jump into the river. Perhaps it is a warm day, and the cool water appears inviting. When you jump into the water, especially if the river has a cold source, there is an initial shock to your system. In part, this is because one’s body has already adapted to the air along the bank of the river. But diving in, the difference of temperature, combined with the differences in conductive and convective cooling of the flowing water startles your body. However, often in a few minutes, your body has adapted, and the water now feels comfortable… perhaps even more comfortable than being out of the water.

Imagine now that you are not jumping into a river, but “immersing” yourself in a new culture. Very often there is an immediate “shock” in the experience. You were well adapted in behavior and language to the culture you were in… but now your are disoriented. The language is different, the routines are different, the social connections are different. The disorientation associated with this is called Culture Shock.

In time, however, you, if you are like most people, will adjust. You learn the language enough for basic communication, you learn how to eat, maneuver, and deal with various social activities. You might even get to the point that you would rather stay in this new culture. The process of adapting to the new culture is called Acculturation. More on acculturation will be covered in a later chapter.

Let’s stay with the river metaphor but add animals. Which animal would understand the river best? That is, which animal would have the highest level of experience-based understanding of the characteristics of water in the river.

The first animal to consider would be a Fish. A fish should have a pretty strong understanding of the water and the river since the fish spends all of its time in that environment. While that makes sense, there are limits. A fish doesn’t have much to compare to. It has no experience of land except the mud and rocks at the bottom of the river. It has no experience of the air except the tiny amount of experience it may have at the surface of the river. There is a saying that goes, “If you want to know about water, do NOT ask a fish.” And that makes sense. A fish would have a hard time explaining water since it doesn’t have much of anything to compare it to. We tend to understand things by comparing them to other things.

The second animal to consider is a Cat. Most cats don’t really care for the water. They will swim if they they have no choice. They will drink water if they can find a quiet pool. But for the most part, cats (with the exception of tigers) generally stay away from all but the edges of rivers. Their understanding of the river is superficial. They can taste the water of the river and can see the surface of the river. They may see distorted images of fish swimming below, but not much else. Cats have a limited understanding of rivers.

The third animal to consider is a Duck. Ducks live in several environments. Ducks make their nests on land or, for some species, in trees. They often walk on land. They fly in the air. They also swim on the surface of the river. Many types of ducks also dive. They dive into the river and swim underwater to get food.

A duck has a considerable advantage over the fish and the cat. The fish may know a lot about rivers but lacks the knowledge of other environments to effectively explain the characteristics. The cat has only a superficial understanding of the river. But a duck knows the surface of the river intimately, and the environment underwater reasonably well, although less than a fish. However, its advantage over the fish is in its considerable knowledge of other environments that it can compare the river to.

Let’s bring this back to culture. Suppose we have two cultures: Culture A and Culture B. Suppose we want to know about Culture B. Who would know Culture B the best?

A fish corresponds to someone who has only lived in Culture B. He knows a lot about his own culture, but very little of other cultures. He is a Monocultural individual. As noted in a previous chapter, a person who is monocultural is limited in understanding his own culture because he lacks knowledge of other cultures for comparison. He does not know what makes his own culture different from others because he doesn’t know what is unique to his culture and what is common to all humanity. One can describe him as having an Emic perspective. Emic means that he has the perspective of an cultural insider. That perspective has both positive and negative aspects for understanding.

A cat corresponds to someone who lives in Culture A, but looks in on Culture B This is an Etic perspective, or outsider perspective. This perspective gives opportunity for comparison between cultures A and B, but the perspective is hampered by the superficiality of the understanding of Culture B.

A duck corresponds to someone from Culture A (etic perspective) who also has considerable experience in Culture B. The cross-cultural perspective involving intentional crossing of cultural bounds to learn another culture is methodologically described as participant-observation.” That means that one is actively involved in culture B (participant) but doing so as one from an outside culture (observer). The goal is that one has the understanding of diverse cultures for comparison… something lacking in a strictly emic perspective, while having a deeper understanding of the new culture… something lacking in an etic perspective.

Part 2 relates this to Theology… particularly Contextualized Theology.

Necessity of Theology and Ethics in Pastoral Care

Originally posted on Bukal Life Care:

A question can be asked as to whether there is a role for pastoral care. While pastoral care has centuries (millenia) of experience… the last 100 years has seen growth of alternatives for psychoemotional care.

Consider 6 possible (or at least potential) views regarding therapeutic care for those with psychoemotional problems. (These are listed by H. Newton Malony in “The Demise and Rebirth of the Chaplaincy” Journal of Pastoral Care, Vol. 29, 1975)

  1. Biophysical. The psychoemotional problems stem from problems with the physical body.

  2. Intrapsychic. The problems stem from bad mental processes/conflicts going on within the mind.

  3. Behavioral. The problem is bad learned habits that must be unlearned/replaced.

  4. Socioeconomic. The problem is the environment the person is in. It is necessary to change the setting.

  5. Meaning. The problem is that the individual has failed to gain a sense or purpose or meaning in life.

  6. Morality

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Cultural Labeling and “Motive Glasses”

A fascinating study done by David Rosenhan of Stanford University illustrates the impact of psychiatric labeling. Rosenhan and several colleagues had themselves committed to mental hospitals  with a diagnosis of “schizophrenia.” After being admitted, each of these pseudo-patients dropped all pretense of mental illness. Yet, even though they acted completely normal, none of the researchers was ever recognized by hospital staff as a phony patient. Real patients were not so easily fooled. It was not unusual for a patient to say to one of the researchers, “You’re not crazy, you’re checking up on the hospital!” or “You’re a journalist.”

To record his observations, Rosenham took notes by carefully jotting things on a small piece of paper hidden in his hand. However, he soon learned that stealth was totally unnecessary. Rosenhan simply walked around with a clipboard, recording observations and collecting data. No one questioned this behavior. Rosenhan’s note taking was just regarded as a symptom of his “illness.” This observation clarifies why staff members failed to detect the fake patients. Because they were in a mental ward, and because they had been labeled schizophrenic, anything the pseudo-patients did was seen as a symptom of psychopathology.

As Rosenham’s study shows, it is far better to label problems than to label people. Think of the difference in impact between saying “You are experiencing a serious psychological disorder” and saying, “You are a schizophrenic.”

-Dennis Coon, “Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior,” 9th edition. pages 556-557

Labels are often seen as giving stereotyped characteristics. As an American, some people may make assumptions about how I am supposed to act, think, and feel. But perhaps more insidious is the tendency to affect one’s assumptions on motives. In the above quote, staff workers were not stereotyping behavior, but making assumptions on motives. Non-schizophrenic researchers were behaving very much different than typical schizophrenic patients. Instead of questioning the label “schizophrenic” based on new facts, the staff questioned motives… The individuals must be imitating sane researchers because they are schizophrenic, and schizophrenics must seek to behave like people they are not.

The danger with labels is that they can make stereotypes incontestable. After all, if one has the stereotype that a certain racial group is lazy, it can be quickly challenged on a fact level by meeting a person in that race who is not lazy. But if one accepts the label on a motivation level… one will never meet a “non-lazy” member of that race. Rather, one will come across deceptive manipulators who try to appear hard-working to “trick” others, disguising their own laziness.

I first took time to think about this problem back decades ago when I was living in the US. I liked to listen to talk radio while I was driving (never really enjoyed listening to music much on the road… or off the road). This was during the presidential administration of Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton was labelled as a Democrat and as a Liberal. The talk show hosts were typically Republican and Conservative (all within the American political definitions of these terms). I began to notice that when President Clinton did something that the talk show hosts disliked… they would attack him for his words and actions. However, when he did or said something that they would normally approve of, rather than commending him, they would attack his motives. He is try to pander to a certain political block… he was doing it to garner financial support, seeking to fool conservatives, etc. To be quite upfront here, I never cared for Bill Clinton as a political leader and that is unlikely to change any time soon… but I did see that the labels he was given as a Liberal Democrat had gotten to the point that it would be nearly impossible have either label removed. Everything he did supported those labels since people were wearing “motive glasses” and saw all behavior springing from motives consistent with the labels.

<Remember, it took a divine prophecy to get the church of Damascus to remove the label from Saul of “Killer of the Followers of Christ.” Labels are not easily removed.>

Of course, “motive glasses” can also work for you. Many saw Ronald Reagan’s actions in ending the Cold War with the USSR as courageous. A different president may have been viewed “giving up” or as acting in accordance to “commie inclinations.” Either way, motive glasses make it difficult to learn and grow.

In Missions, “Motive Glasses” are particularly dangerous. We need to constantly learn and grow while motive glasses impede learning. Additionally, since motive glasses come from labeling and justifying labels, in the end, they perpetuate the myth that individuals are lost in cultural groupings. While there are many values to studying cultures, it is dangerous to ignore the uniqueness of each person. Finally, motive glasses tend to demonize some people or groups and provide absolution for others.

Cultural Anthropology can be seen as flawed in that it can, at times, perpetuate stereotypes because it often focuses more on group characteristics (labeling) than individual uniqueness. However, as long as it remains open to learning, the process of the study has value. But when labeling begins to lead us to “see” motives clearly, we most likely have crossed into a dangerous area.