Essential Contextualization

Paul Hiebert in his article “Critical Contextualization” describes three types of contextualization:  Non-contextualization, Uncritical Contextualization, and Critical Contextualization.

20a. Critical Contextualization

Critical Contextualization Model (Hiebert)

One can, however, say more. As Jackson Wu states in his book One Gospel for all Nations, “Contextualization is inevitable.” That is, in effect, non-contextualization is still contextualization, just done very poorly.

“David Sills drives home the point clearly when he says, ‘If one does not contextualize, he is doing just that– changing the gospel. He becomes a modern-day Judaizer. He is in effect telling his hearers that they must become like him to be saved.’ I venture to say few missionaries would do this intentionally. However, the implicit message is heard clearly.” (pg. 10)

Dean Fleming highlights a second danger– syncretism. Syncretism emerges whenever the biblical message is made to harmonize so closely with a given culture (or subculture) that the biblical truth is compromised. Syncretistic theology and practices reflect the culture more so than the biblical text. His comments remain among the most important I’ve read on this topic.

‘But could it be that refusing to contextualize the gospel poses an even greater risk of syncretism? Consider the situation today– not unlike that of Colossians– when the gospel meets worldviews that are burdened with fear of unseen powers thought to control practical realities such as crops, health, and family relations. In many cases, the Christian message that has been imported to these contexts from the West has failed to address such issues. As a result, people can easily assume that Jesus is powerless to overcome the forces that influence their daily lives. Like the Colossian syncretists, converts may look for supplements– shamans, amulets, rituals, or occult practices– to protect them from hostile spirits. Ironically, a gospel that neglects such worldview issues may unwittingly end up promoting syncretism instead of preventing it. ‘ (pg 10-11)

So two things one could add to Paul Hiebert’s model:

  1.  Non-contextualization can lead to syncretism, just as over-contextualization. Paul Hiebert’s further teaching on “The Excluded Middle” (as essentially described above by Fleming in terms of the Colossian syncretists) could be in itself seen as Syncretism– a formal high-end (veneer) theology on top of local practices.
  2. The three categories of contextualization arguably are three categories of interpretation, communication, and application of the gospel. That is, non-contextualization is actually a bit of a misnomer. Non-contextualization is very much a form of contextualization. In saying this, it is more than simply saying that an absence of something is still something (like the absence of color, black, is still a color). Rather, when one is not contextualizing the gospel to the recipient culture, one is contextualizing it to another culture.

But I might add that non-contextualization can have results that are non-intutitive. In the Philippines, Christianity has been normally presented in one of two contexts:  Spanish or American. The implicit message is that one or more of these two constitutes where Christianity is properly situated. In so doing, the Philippines is a good place for Christianity as long as Christians there embrace a Spanish or American form. Some Korean missionaries in recent years have done a similar thing but from their own perspective. An interesting twist on that, however, is the growth of “Jewish Culture” Christianity here: Jewish diet, Jewish holidays, learning and idealizing Jewish words and concepts, in some of the church movements in the Philippines.

On a certain level, this reaction makes sense. If Christians here were taught (commonly unintentionally) that a foreign culture is more ideally Christian than Filipino culture, then it is hardly surprising if many Filipinos ask the logical question:

Which is the ideal culture for Christianity–

Ancient Jewish (or 1st century Greek)

or

American (or Spanish)?

The correct answer is actually that the best cultural soil for Christianity in the Philippines is Filipino. But if local Christians haven’t been helped to understand this, it is hardly surprising if they don’t recognize this.

 

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High Context Evangelism

I was talking to my Cultural Anthropology class about high context versus low context communication. A nice source of information about High Context versus Low Context cultures is “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business” by Erin Meyer.

In terms of communication, high context can apply not only to certain countries and cultures, but also to sub-cultures and micro-cultures.

The example of this I used was:

“ECO the 4A16 ASAP”

Most people would not understand this statement. But one can slowly expand it from a bit of high context communication to low context.bridges-not-walls

  1. ECO the 4A16 ASAP
  2. ECO the 4A16 as soon as possible.
  3. (Create an) Engineering Change Order (for) the 4A16 as soon as possible.
  4. Create the paperwork of an Engineering Change Order for the 4A16 Printed Wiring Board as soon as possible.
  5. Create the paperwork of an Engineering Change Order to guide the Design Department to modify the blueprint for the A16 Printed Wiring Board of the Antenna Control Unit (Unit 4) of the BPS-16(V) Submarine Radar System, as soon as possible.

The original (level 1) statement only makes sense to a fairly small group of people (myself included from my days as a mechanical design engineer in a certain department in a certain corporation). By the time we get to level 5, many would understand what is wanted… people who are not part of a very small subculture.

The value of high context communication is two-fold. First, it saves time. Communication is easier for members within the same high-context sub-culture. Second, it separates US from THEN. In missions, however, one must communicate across cultures. And, using language to divide (create a linguistic wall) is problematic when one is trying to use communication to serve as a bridge across cultural barriers.

Frankly, much of our conversation as Christians is High Context.

Consider the statement:

Accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior

This statement is as meaningless as “ECO the 4A16 ASAP” to someone with no acculturation into (Evangelical especially) church sub-culture. Half of the words need to explained… as well as the broader context of the overall message.

And yet, the biggest problem is not those who have no acculturation into the church sub-culture.

Zero cultural understanding leads to No Communication

Limited cultural understanding leads to Miscommunication

While we want non-Christians to understand and respond to a call to allegiance to Jesus Christ. However, miscommunication is more dangerous than no communication, because miscommunication leads to misunderstanding.

Overall, the dangerous with the use of Christian jargon is two-fold… failure to communicate effectively, or the development of misunderstandings.

Struggles with Short-Term Missions

A lot of Short-term Mission teams come from “The West” to the Philippines. And quite a few STM teams leave the Philippines to serve in other parts of the world as well.

And they can do genuine good. When they come in as genuine partners of local ministries, when they come in with welcome skills (especially) and resources, when there is a humbleness of spirit, such teams are great. The best teams, from what I have seen, are small… less than 10. Some of the best ones are just 2 or 3 people– there for transfer of specific needed skills. STM can also be a reminder that the church is not merely local, it is universal– it is not merely united, it is diversified.

But then there are other STM teams. They are a different story. There are many sub-stories in this, but I would focus on five groups. These groups are somewhat related and overlapping.

  1.  Churchy Vacationers. People who join STM often have jobs or school, and so are investing their limited vacations in the trip. But even though it is vacation time, it is still not vacation. Some focus on sight-seeing and creature comforts. Others are shutterbugs taking pictures of (exploiting) people who are struggling. It is tempting, and in many parts of the world, the rules of hospitality can make this attitude seem okay for STMers. At the other end of the spectrum, rarely, one can see the opposite where a STM trip was set up to work, work, work, and leave. However, a properly designed STM trip is more like work, work, fun, work.  Mixing a bit of fun with the work will also help make the work more fun.
  2. Cultural Critics. Some come as (very poorly trained) cultural anthropologists. They bring their ethnocentric views of their home with them, and can’t help but note how the food is not as good in their ministry location as it is at home– How the people are so “primitive”– How their houses are so crude, their clothes so odd, and their work so unorganized. Of course, a good cultural anthropologist would not come in and critique compared to one’s own culture. And in STM, one is not generally in a location long enough to critique competently anyway. Even if one is competent, it is commonly wise to keep one’s mouth shut anyway. None of us really enjoy outsiders coming in a disrespecting our country or culture.
  3. Unwitting Burdeners. Some STMers come in and want to help. But too many people helping too much can prove a very big burden on the locals. A team of 15, for example need to be fed, housed, and driven around. Even if the team comes with finances to cover the costs of their stay, the visit can still be a logistical nightmare, and a drain to time, and energy. When we have had short-term mission teams come, I have talked to my church here first, and let them know that it is likely that the STMers will gain more from the experience than the church. Is that okay? That understanding up front really can help. I have seen short-term mission trips where the host got the impression that the STM trip would be a financial and ministerial boon for them. It may or may not be true, but it is certainly not a healthy attitude regardless.
  4. Visionary Dominators. Sometimes, STM teams come in with a clear vision of what they want to do and what they don’t want to do. In many cases, the local hosts are seen more as means to accomplish their vision, rather than partners in ministry. Since locals are experts of what is needed, typically, the vision should come more from them. Often locals have a greater sense of what needs to be done, but are not able to bring that across to the STM mobilizers who are dictating what will be done.

Often STM is touted as a great boon for missions, or even a substitute for a long-term mission presence. Such views are far too rosy. A more realistic view is needed. On the other hand, some see STM as a problem, or at best a good way to inspire the members of the STM team to greater missions awareness. That may be true, but short-term missions can be far more than that.

Dark Night of the Soul

My son is a member of a theology club at the seminary he attends (that is coincidently the seminary that both my wife and I teach at). He led a discussion, while all were eating samgyeopsal, on Christian Mysticism. He sought to avoid the obvious stereotypes… Mysticism as “New Age” of syncretistic, Mysticism as Heresy, and Mysticism as self-absorbed contemplation. It is not to say that those stereotypes are meaningless, but can be used broad-brush to ignore more positive aspects of Christian Mysticism. The key point here is to note that Mysticism can be Christian— doctrinally Christian, and committed to Christ. Its goal in this context is communion with God.

He used as his primary source Evelyn Underhill’s 1911 classic, Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness. The topic was interesting, and the discussion was lively. The main interest ended up however, being in the sub-topic, “The Dark Night of the Soul.” The term, a translation of a phrase coined by St. John of the Cross, and the title of a poem he wrote, describes a season of emptiness.

In the journey to communion with God, many Christian mystics (and I don’t see it limited to them only) experience a time of spiritual “dryness”– a feeling that God is not near, and is not listening. In this situation, the individual will often have symptoms of depression, and feel temptations for vices thought long conquered.

What should be made of such symptoms? Some perhaps would join Job’s friends in seeing it as evidence of punishment for ungodliness.

I would argue that this “Dark Night of the Soul” is far from limited to the Christian mystic. I think all of us have times where we see God as distant. I think many of us feel a disconnection and depression… and don’t always know why. Job did not know why, and as far as the text goes, it was never explained. Jesus felt a disconnection from the Father. Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken Me.” Some try to read that through the lens of Penal Substitutionary Atonement theology (Jesus took on our sin at that moment, and so the Father was forced to look away).  Others push towards a fulfillment of prophecy thing. But perhaps we are trying to be too theologically clever. Many have felt that they were trudging through the “Valley of Death” with little evidence of upcoming greener pastures and stiller waters.

A number of the Lament Psalms appear to describe a similar feeling. Psalm 44, especially expresses this, for it sees God as the cause of misery, but without the classic justifications:

All this has come upon us,
 though we have not forgotten you,
 and we have not been false to your covenant.
Our heart has not turned back,
 nor have our steps departed from your way;
yet you have broken us in the place of jackals
 and covered us with the shadow of death.
If we had forgotten the name of our God
 or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
would not God discover this?
 For he knows the secrets of the heart.
Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughered.
Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face?
 Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
For our soul is bowed down to the dust;
 our belly clings to the ground.
Rise up; come to our help!
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!
             Psalm 44:17-26

These times are probably better a time for self-reflection and a call out to God. For others, it is a time for understanding and support. Many have seen these times open to greater joys and closeness with God.

A nice little article from Christianity Today on this is HERE.

Multiplex Relationships Through the Church

Discussion can not only reveal new things… it can make old things more clear and vibrant.

I was teaching Cultural Anthropology the other day, and I was talking about Simplex versus Multiplex relationships. Simplex means that there is only one relationship between two individuals— for example, boss/worker. Multiplex means that there are several relationships— for example two people may have a boss/worker relationship, also a Sunday school teacher/student relationship, and a neighbor/neighbor relationship, all at the same time. Or it can be a web of relationships

Figure 17

Simplex Structure

Cult Anthrop Rev - Kindl_html_m566baa79

Multiplex Structure

At first it sounds backwards, but small communities tend to have multiplex relationships, and large urban settings tend to have simplex relationships. Consider the following urban example (from the Philippines perspective). Paul wakes up and starts getting ready for work and he here the “Pandesal Guy” walking through the neighborhood selling bread rolls. Paul buys some pandesal from him. They exchange pleasantries, but they really don’t know each other, Their only relationship is between “Pandesal Guy” and “Customer.” Paul leaves and walks out to the main road to get a jeepney. Along to path Paul sees some neighbors. They are friendly enough but he doesn’t know them beyond being neighbors. The jeepney driver picks him up. They know each other but really only in terms of driver and rider. He goes to work, eats lunch, continues work, and returns home. All along the way, he interacts with dozens of people, but all of them with simplex relationships… he knows them only in one type of exchange, and commonly, those individuals don’t know each other.

Is there anything wrong with this? Well, yes., as was noted by one of my students. Moving from a small community to a large city, he noticed how unsatisfying and shallow the relationships were. Reflecting on the class discussion, he believed that the dominance of simplex relationships is much of the cause. It takes multiple levels of interactions to provide a certain closeness or richness in a relationship.

What are some implications of this? I would hazard a few tentative ones:

  1. A healthy and close relationship should have multiple levels, and web-like cross-connections. “Bowling Buddies” may get along well. But it takes other levels of reltionships (kinship, occupational, religious, etc.) to provide depth to these relationship. One of the closest relationships I have had as a missionary is a friend of mine who I have worked with for years in ministry. But I have also served for a time as his benefactor. He has also served as a time as my benefactor. I have worked for him in ministry, and he as trained under me for ministry. These different, and conflicting, roles strengthen the relationship, I believe.
  2. Perhaps it is out of the struggles of mutliple levels of relationships that true depth in relationship occurs. Imagine two brothers who run a business together. You may expect that there would be a lot of fighting. The kinship and the financial relationships clash with each other. The struggle can tear apart a family. But if the two can learn to deal with conflict, it seems possible that they would have a level of closeness that goes beyond typical brothers. The husband and wife relationship always has conflicts due to the web of interconnections, but also because the multiple roles leads to conflicts. Some groups promoting so-called “Biblical Manhood” and “Biblical Womanhood,” look at the relationship in fairly simple terms– the man is the decisionmaker for everything regardless of whose role or responsibility the decision is related to, while the woman is always submissive or sometimes even passive, even in areas that are tied to her role in the family. That hardly seems particularly Biblical. Marriages in the Bible always seem to have a certain amount of conflict and dynamism associated with them. Perhaps trying to reduce the normally multiplex relationship of marriage into a simplex one would produce a more stable family (Confucian rules of submission do give stability, for example) but hardly a relationally rich marriage.
  3. The church, in an urban environment especially, has the opportunity to provide rich multiplex relationships to contrast the shallow simplex relationships within the surrounding society. A church may have a hierarchal structure, or a more flat democratic structure– I am not sure that that matters. But from a relationship level, the messiness of a small community should be encouraged in the church, I believe.

Visiting a church and a Bible school in Hong Kong, I met a lot of women from the Philippines who serve as domestic helpers (maids, yayas, nannies, and so forth). They work long hours, often from before sunrise, to well after sunset 6 days out of 7. So what do they do on their day off each week? They go to church. They join a Sunday school class, and then they exuberantly join in the main worship service. After, many of them go off to have lunch together, and then many still join together to go off to the Bible school to be trained. Sitting in on one of those classes, I was amazed at the level of camaraderie, and the joy they had to learn together. Also while I was there, an instructor who had taught there for three months, came back for a short visit. She was swarmed by students so happy to see her back. Afterwards, many of us went off to have a meal together. For these women (and a much smaller number of men) this camaraderie compensates to a large extent for the long hours, and in many cases mistreatment, related to their jobs, and at least alleviates a bit their disconnection from their families.

I think that the church, especially in urban settings, or in diaspora/expatriot circumstances, can provide that deeper multiplex relational network that creates a community.