I have suggested before that Counter-cultural contextualization (to me at least at this moment) best describes proper missional contextualization of the Christian message. The goal is to contrast the Christian message to the surrounding culture, but without being “anti-culture.” Counterculture suggests a critical agency to use the culture, esteeming the good, while challenging that which is false.
Tied to this is the idea of the “subversive fulfillment” of symbols and cultural characteristics. The idea that the Gospel comes as “subversive fulfillment” of a culture was put forward by Hendrick Kraemer, where the Gospel fulfills the needs found in cultures while also challenge much of the worldview and underlying beliefs. The same can be said of symbols and concepts. The following is a quote by Willem A. Visser ‘t ‘Hooft in Accommodation: True or False (South East Asia Journal of Theology, 8, 3, January 1967, 5-18).Key-words from other religions when taken over by the Christian Church are like displaced persons, uprooted and unassimilated until they are naturalised. The uncritical introduction of such words into Christian terminology can only lead to that syncretism that denies the uniqueness and specific character of the different religions and creates a grey relativism. What is needed is to re-interpret the traditional concepts, to set them in a new context, to fill them with biblical content. Kraemer uses the term ―subversive fulfillment‖ and in the same way we could speak of subversive accommodation. Words from the traditional culture and religion must be used, but they must be converted in the way in which Paul and John converted Greek philosophical and religious concepts.
Clearly there is the danger of failure to be subversive or counter-cultural. In this case, non-Christian concepts and symbols simply get a Christian veneer or label. On the other hand, failing to seek to fulfill culture creates a ghettoized faith. One is reminded of the Jehovah’s Witness religion where anything that is labelled as having “pagan roots” is rejected. Since almost everything has pagan roots at some point, one can quickly be straight-jacketed by such a principle. One is also reminded of some churches within the Church of Christ denominations who only allow behavior specifically commanded or permitted in the New Testament. Both viewpoints in the end tend to bless a specific culture, whether it be New Testament Greek Christian culture, or the culture of the founder of the religious movement.
It is not always certain where good subversion starts and stops. For example, in the Philippines a long-standing cultural trait is “Passivity” or “Lack of Initiative.” I sometimes call this the “datu mentality.” A datu is a tribal or community leader who makes the decisions for the people and the people passively respond.
So how does the Gospel provide subversive fulfillment in Filipino culture. Would the result support or attack this passivity? It is hard to say. Here in the Philippines, a large religious group is known as INC (“Iglesia ni Christo”) which is founded in Christianity, although it has a heterodox Christology. The group definitely maintains the datu mentality with a very rigid hierarchy and power structure, with a highly compliant membership. Another group is the followers of Apollo Quiboloy. Claiming to be the “new” Son of God, he likewise maintains a structure consistent with the datu mentality. Among more orthodox groups, a somewhat popular church system here is known as “Government of 12″ or G-12. It, likewise, maintains a rigid hierarchy, with a theology that maintains ecclesiastical and divine power centered at the top. While some of the teachings of this movement are certainly quirky, it is far more Evangelical than the other two mentioned. So is it good or bad or something in between?
Using this example as a case, does subversive fulfillment of culture support or attack the datu mentality? I don’t know. Personally, I think it attacks it. Here is why:
a. The Bible does teach that each individual has direct access to God through Jesus, so there is no need for a religious datu, at least for the purposes of divine grace.
b. A passive membership with a strong central leadership has been found (in group dynamics) to produce groups that are less creative, less innovative, and more prone to corruption. Few would think this is a healthy result.
c. While the datu mentality is recognized as a Filipino characteristic, many Filipinos recognize it as a a problematic trait and a cultural weakness. Just like consumerism is commonly recognized by Americans as a cultural weakness, many cultures recognize areas that may be fulfilled through the change wrought by the Gospel of Christ.
So this is one opinion, but clearly many don’t feel this way. However, you can see the problem. When does the Gospel change the culture and when does it support a cultural trait? It is not, and should not be easy.
A nice article to read in this area of critical contextualization and subversive fulfillment is “Gospel, Culture, and Cultures: Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Contribution” by Mike Goheen,