I am happy to say that I don’t hear this much anymore… the idea that the gospel message needs not be contextualized or made to be recognized relevant to the hearer. On occasion, one hears someone quote Isaiah 55:11, believing that God word accomplishes what it is supposed to do, despite us.
So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth;
It shall not return to Me void,
But it shall accomplish what I please,
And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
Usually, rather than attacking contextualization, what is challenged is the motive behind contextualization… the belief (or perhaps fear) that contextualization is some sort of pluralistic relativism, diluting the Christian faith. Can it be that? I suppose… one can interpret almost anything as anything… that is the characteristic of pure symbols. However, such fear can be a lazy excuse to use just one presentation of God’s message, even where such a presentation would in all probability be a failure. Or it may be a lazy or selfish choice to not understand others.
Let’s consider a rather extreme case of bad contextualization of the Gospel. It is the story of Emperor Atahualpa, and the Conquistador Pizarro. You can read the story in one of my previous posts… HERE. This version of the story is from Jared Diamond in “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” Look at the method of presentation of the Gospel, and the results.
On the quick read one might argue that it wasn’t a presentation of the gospel at all. For Evangelicals it does not push toward the tradition of the “Sinner’s Prayer.” There is also no focus on sin, repentance, and faith. Yet it does have a couple of features that make it an even more theologically sound presentation of the Gospel. Consider the following:
A. The friar was offering to teach the people to be friends of God. This focus on discipleship certainly places it superior to calls for belief without Lordship of Christ, or a call even to follow Christ in any meaningful way.
B. The message of Good News was actually from God’s Word, the Bible. In fact, the friar gave the Emperor the Bible, and sought to help him use the Bible. This certainly places it superior to presentations that are more logical or clever, but clearly outside of utilizing the whole of Scripture.
So if this was such a good presentation of the Gospel, why did it fail so miserably. (Frankly, I hope most readers would identify the killing of thousands of non-Christians and the subjugation of the rest as an undesirable result of a gospel presentation.) Many of the problems with the presentation were due to the cross-cultural gap that had to be bridged. But there were other problems as well that may not have as much causation from poor contextualization. Let’s consider the contextual issues first.
- The Word of God wasn’t really presented in a way where it could be responded to. The Incan Emperor did not know how to read Latin, so he could not have read it, to say nothing of responding to it after understanding it. Giving the Bible to someone who can’t understand it, thinking it will have a positive result is quite foolish. The power of the Bible is in the message it conveys… not some magic associated with it, and not the physical structure of the Bible.
- The Bible was not even in a medium that the Emperor could appreciate. The Incans had no written language, so he had no concept of written language. He did not even know how to open the book. The present the Bible utilizing a medium that the people cannot connect to is much like establishing a Christian radio station in the 16th century— an impressive accomplishment, but no one will be able to receive the message. They won’t even know that there was a message being sent in the first place.
- The message was given disrespectfully. When the Emperor did not know how to open the book, the friar tried to reach up to help. The Emperor was angry. Probably, although I am just guessing, the behavior was inappropriate when dealing with the Emperor. Of course, making the emperor angry through a social faux pas is quite likely to drive a wedge between the two rather than leading to agreement.
- The behavior of the friar and Pizarro was thoroughly ethnocentric. It was so ethnocentric that when the Emperor tossed aside the Bible (tossing something he had never seen before– and did not look all that interesting since he could not read), the friar called them enemy dogs and the Emperor a tyrant. In all likelihood the friar did not know the Emperor well enough to know if he was a tyrant. He may well have been no more of a tyrant than the Spanish royals. Calling them dogs is a disappointingly classic form of dehumanization and of self-elevation. In the 1500s explorers and theologians struggled with the question of whether the strange beings they found in other lands were truly human or not. The wise of that time didn’t know the limits of what is, so it is understandable if there was some confusion. Still, if one was actually superior, it hardly seems appropriate (or even necessary) to degrade the others further. Certainly presuming that their deaths were less of a tragedy than one’s own people, qualifies as ethnocentric.
There were other problems as well:
- Mixed motive. Pizarro was a conquistador… driven forward by the desire for conquest (thus the term “conquistador”) and wealth. The friar actually joined the group because of his desire for plunder, not hearts turned to God.
- Mixed allegiances. Pizarro calls for the Incans to be subject to God, the the King of Spain, and the Roman Catholic church. It is understandable that missionaries sometimes identify themselves with their nation of origin or their own denomination so strongly that they struggle in separating those allegiances from allegiance to God. History does have many stories that may lead one to concern about mixing denominationalism (or creedalism) or nationalism, with allegiance to God.
- Mixed methods. Mixing the message of God’s desire to make peace with all mankind with an army bent on destruction and colonization certainly sends a double message.
I think it is safe to say that contextualization, and proper motivation has a strong effect on how people respond to the Gospel.