Counter-cultural Contextual Storying

From Chapter of Same Name in Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative and Culture
I believe that Counter-cultural contextualization best describes making the Christian message relevant and resonant in a specific cultural setting. 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. By this is meant that each culture has good in it and the symbols/metaphors that are within the culture can be used to tear down (subvert) aspects of the culture that are destructive, fulfilling the potential of that culture to be a holy environment of God’s people. As noted in Endnote 1 for Chapter 7, Crossan described parables as narrative that subverts the world. If that is accurate, then parables are perhaps the best form of narrative for subversive fulfillment and counter-cultural contextualization.
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 challenges 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,
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.
If the message of Christ is presented as an attack on the entire culture, it will be rejected, or accepted as a foreign faith acting as a thin veneer over the underlying worldview. Paul Hiebert would call this non-contextualization. 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. Or one can look to the Islamic practice of diffusion of faith (as described by Lamin Sanneh, contrasting translation of faith) Both viewpoints in the end tend to bless a specific culture, whether it be New Testament Greek Christian culture, or 7th century Western Arabic culture.
If the message of Christ is not presented so that it is subversive or counter-cultural, if it is presented to be compatible with the broad culture (both good and bad), there is a tendency to create a syncretistic faith. Hiebert would describe this as uncritical contextualization.
What is needed, using again Hiebert’s terminology, is “critical contextualization.” While others may disagree (and do disagree) I see critical contextualization as best related to counter-cultural contextualization. Stephen Bevans in “Models of Contextual Theology” classifies the different forms of contextualization into six broad categories. It seems to me that the one that is the closest to the truth is the category he describes as “Counter-cultural contextualization.” He notes that some describe this form as “encounter contextualization” or “prophetic contextualization.” I don’t care for those terms since they appear to over-spiritualize a process that may or may not do justice to the term.
Repeating what was said before, Counter-culture is not Anti-culture. An anti-cultural attitude rejects a culture without making the effort to recognize and redeem the good. A counter-cultural attitude rejects failings in a culture while living with and within, and even affirming other aspects of, that culture. This suggests that a counter-cultural contextualization requires:
1. Understand the symbols of the culture. If the basic characteristic of culture is its formation and utilization of symbols to provide the interface between individuals in society with the natural world, one cannot understand a culture without understanding its symbols…. its values, stories, myths, priorities.
2. Analyze the culture through the eyes of Scripture. This process requires solid exegesis to avoid the extremes of cultural imperialism on one side and excessive accommodation on the other. In some cases, the analysis may lead to modest rejection of surface behaviors. In other cases, important aspects of the worldview must be challenged. However, the good should always be affirmed.
3. Utilize the symbols of the culture to challenge it. This should be done sympathetically, affirming of the good within the culture.
This is what Jesus did in the form of parables. Jesus used relevant symbols within the 1st century Jewish culture to challenge aspects of that culture. Wine, vines, shepherds, sheep, marriage feasts, light, salt, slavery, and other items ingrained in Jewish culture were used to challenge common perceptions and values in that culture.
Since parables are stories rooted firmly in the symbolic structure of a culture and attacks certain beliefs within that culture, parables are an important part in counter-cultural contextualization. Counter-cultural contextualization is grounded in solid hermeneutics. However, its application is definitely dependent on the creative and artistic.
Great, But Now What?
How can this be done? It is difficult to train to be artistic. But a few things come to mind.
A. Learn the stories that people in a culture enjoy to discover cultural themes. In the US, a dominant cultural trait is achievement (the Horatio Alger, “rags to riches” motif). Another is the American Dream (economic ascendancy of a family over succeeding generations). Another could be the underdog as victor (David over Goliath). In the Philippines luck (suarte) and fatalism (bahala na) appears to be a major concern. Another could be the Philippine dream (Educating children so they can get good jobs overseas and send money back home). An additional one could be the appreciation of getting along with one another despite substantive disagreement (pakikisama). Another one (although starting to reduce) is the (unwarranted) sense of inferiority to foreigners. These traits provide the language of stories, but also the areas to challenge.
B. Read and watch stories that practice the form of the parable. This can be uncomfortable. A story that challenges an important part of American culture is likely to be considered Un-American. Such
writers may be thought of as being Un-American, or troublemakers. The same is true of writers who act in the counter-culture of other cultures and nations. Christians in a particular culture tend to strongy distrust the counter-culture, because it impinges on their own comfort zone. But even if one ultimately rejects the messages of the counter-culture after critical reflection, there is value in listening. A story such as “Citizen Kane” or “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” can challenge materialism, for example. Listening to news from other countries (or other viewpoints within one’s own country) may attack excessive nationalism or mono-culturalism.
C. Master the short-story. I enjoy reading O Henry stories although they are decades old. They are often humorous, short, and have a twist at the end. Even today, “The Gift of the Magi” (O Henry) and “A Christmas Carol” (Dickens) are remembered and provide a challenge (if one takes the time to hear the challenge in the story). A good parable can be harsh or dramatic, such as “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” but can also be given in humous form (a similar message is provided in the movie “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” for example). Seek competence in the narrative form over the didactic, or polemic forms. Entertainment value is a real value. A good story with a good message that has little to no entertainment value is, simply, not a good story.
D. Practice. One can look at existing stories and parables and see which ones can be used or modified for a new culture. For example, I have seen the story of the Prodigal Son reinterpreted very successfully for the Highlands of Luzon. The tribal groups here have seen far too many of their children leave the rice terraces, lured into the Lowlands and the big cities (such as Manila or Baguio City) and the corresponding vices there.4 The parable of the Prodigal Son only needs modest changes to be very relevant in showing the father who overlooks the shamelessness (walang hiya) of the son and risks personal status to forgive and restore him into the tightly knit family and village. Taking a well established story or story form and changing perspective or roles can greatly surprise and change the message.
E. Live it.  Jesus created stories by living them. Jesus challenged legalistic cultural rules of His time by violating them. These violations (grabbing wheat berries on Saturday, or not ritually washing) may not be understood in a different culture, but they were easy to recognize in that culture. Stories are not simply told… they are lived out.
Final Thought
It has often been said that the pen is mightier than the sword. Is this true? The jury is still out on that one. Sometimes, the sword has won out over ideas and writing. However, the impact of ideas and great storytellers has typically been greater than great warriors. Warriors must train well to use the tools of their trade well, and be sure of their targets and objectives. Those who are involved with “theo-storying” must, then, be even that much more concerned with their training and objectives. The research into the culture and the care in crafting illustrations, revelations, myths, and parables should be considered to be as much part of ministry as preaching, evangelizing, and discipling.
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A Paradoxical Faith

One of my favorite verses in the Bible to meditate on is Mark 9:24.

Immediately the father of the boy cried out, “I do believe; help my unbelief!”

The context is a father of a boy who is described as demon-possessed. The disciples of Jesus have been unable to provide help. Jesus questions the father, who then asks Jesus to heal his son “if He is able.” Jesus notes that “Everything is possible for the one who believes.” 330px-healing_of_the_demon-possessed

The father’s response to this, “I do believe; help my unbelief!” may sound wishy-washy. In fact, I have seen commentaries that look down on this response as weak compared to the wholehearted confidence of some others in the Bible. The response was viewed as poor… but just good enough for Jesus to respond.

The commentaries could be correct, but I guess I just really don’t see it that way.

There is an honesty to his response. He is struggling with doubt, and that is really okay. Some see the essence of faith being an absence of doubt. However, when one gets to Hebrews 11,  we find the paragons of faith as those who acted with firm resolve. That resolve doesn’t necessarily suggest ZERO doubt. In fact, Moses and Gideon showed signs of considerable doubt. Yet in the end, they resolved to obey God. James also describes faith in a similar manner. Faith is evidenced by its expression of will not cognitive certainty.

The father came to Jesus. If he could fully express his thoughts, it could be something like this:

“I believe you, Jesus, have the ability to save my son. But I also know that I could be wrong. I do have doubts… but I refuse to act on those doubts. I will act on what I believe and what I hope. I come to you, Jesus, to save my son.”

Jesus seemed satisfied with the response, and healed the son. It is as if He was saying, “That’s really all I ask.”  Much of the Bible shows faith in this way… trust me in your doubts, and you will be rescued–

Taste and see that the Lord is good;
    blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.” 

Psalm 34:8

This seems to be a paradox in faith that we need to get comfortable with. Many of the best examples of faith, have a paradoxical twist built into them.

  1.  An example of faith that caused Jesus to marvel was the centurion in Matthew 8.  

    Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

    The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

    This is an amazing example of faith, understanding something about Jesus’ ability to heal that even His disciples may not have realized. However, there is nothing in the passage that suggests that the centurion knew what Jesus would do. He had great faith in Jesus’ ability to heal if Jesus chose to do so, but expressed no such confidence that Jesus would choose to act.  Is that a problem? I don’t believe so. Certainly Jesus did not think so.

  2. Another example is in Daniel 3 in the story of the fiery furnace. 

    16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”  (Daniel 3: 16-18)

    Again, their faith was demonstrated in their decision to obey God, even though they did not know what God would actually do.

  3. The quintessential example of faith in the Bible is Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at the command of God. The Bible says that Abraham’s faith was counted unto him for righteousness. Paul expands on Abraham’s example to note that no person is declared righteous via the Law, but only through the grace of God that comes from man’s faith in God. The writer of Hebrews expands on this point, but adds an interesting note to it. In chapter 11,

    17 By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

    It is interesting that Abraham’s faith in God had a flaw in it. His faith seems to be that God would make him kill his own son, and then God would raise Isaac from the dead. So if Abraham’s faith was in cognitive certainty, then it was certainty in something that wasn’t actually true.

In the above three numbered examples, faith a flaw, or paradoxical twist. For the centurion, there appeared to be uncertainty whether Jesus would respond to his request. For Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, there was uncertainty as to whether God would act to save them or not. In the case of Abraham, his belief as to what God would have him do and what God would do after was mistaken.

What made the faith of the above three marvelous was not their lack of doubt or confusion as to the future, but their commitment to God in the present.

The man in Mark 9 came to Jesus to have his son healed. And despite the fact that Jesus’ disciples utterly failed to heal the child, the father stayed. When Jesus questioned the man as to his belief, the man was honest enough to express the (quite reasonable, under the circumstances) doubts he had, and yet he still believed and would still call on Jesus to save his son. The man did not know for sure, but he was willing to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

It may seem a bit paradoxical, but that is exactly the faith we need— uncertain of the future, but certain of our intent to come to Jesus for mercy.

 

 

 

 

Church TQM

Back when I was an engineer, most all of the employees in our company were trained in TQM (Total Quality Management). If you haven’t heard of it, feel free to websearch it now. I’ll wait.

Okay. Anyway… an aspect of it has to do with analysis of problems. In it, one focuses on Process rather than People. That is, when a problem occurs, rather than trying to figure out “Whodunnit” and then fire the person, one looks for ways to improve the process. Even in cases where it was clearly one person’s fault, it generally makes more sense to look at what processes led to the problem.

sapphira-leclerc

For example, suppose Bryan was making widgets, and installs the whatsit in backwards causing it to glorph dangerously leading millions of dollars of damage. In a People-oriented analysis, the goal would be to figure out who to blame (Bryan) and then punish him… probably fire him.

In the process-oriented analysis, the focus would be on what processes led to a failure leading to a defective product coming out the door. Do changes need to be made to the inspection process? What about training? What about oversight/supervision? What about design? As a former engineer, this last one is most important to me. The fact that the whatsit could be installed backwards in the widget suggests the need of a redesign so that installing it wrong is impossible. If it cannot be made impossible, design could be changed so that manufacturing it the correct way would be clearly identifiable as such. And if that is impossible, perhaps design a test that would identify the problem easily before it gets out of the door.

But what about in a church situation. If there is a problem in the church, should one focus on people or processes? Churches commonly focus on people— identify the sin, identify the sinner. That seems like it is the way it is supposed to be. The Bible clearly focuses on sin, correct?

Curiously, in the first church (Jerusalem) the first two recorded problems were handled in different ways— the first is focused on the person, and second on the process.

Person (to Blame) Focus is found in Acts 5. This is the story of Ananias and Sapphira story. In it, a problem was identified… and the focus was immediately on who to blame for the sin and who is thus worthy of punishment.

Process Focus is found in Acts 6. In the story, Hellenistic Jews were concerned that their widows were not being cared for as well as were the widows of Hebraic Jews. This is actually a much more serious of a problem than in Acts 5. In chapter 5, there was personal issue of lying… but in 6 is the charge of systemic bigotry. However, in the case of Acts 6, there seems to be no attempt to find out who to blame. No attempts to divert blame either. Rather, they immediately go to changing the process. They chose 7 men (6 Hellenistic Jews and 1 Gentile Proselyte) to provide oversight of the care of the widows to ensure they are treated as well as their Hebraic counterparts.

Since both problem analysis methods are used (problem-focused and process-focused) in the Bible, does it mean that both are equally valid?

I would argue that the Process focus is the preferred one in the Bible. There are three reasons I believe this. First, the Ananias and Sapphira event is a most unique case in the NT church. Only rarely is there a “Who’s to Blame” attitude found. Most often in the Epistles the focus seems to be on Prevention of problems, or finding Redemption after problems. You may agree or disagree with me on this, but study and decide for yoyrself. Second, relatedly, sin is not a major emphasis in the NT church either. The emphasis is more on the transformation we have now in and through Christ, and how that is to be demonstrated in our actions and words. In other words, greater emphasis is on the processes of edification and supporting each other, towards godly virtue, than on pointing out sins.

Third, Luke appears to editorialize the events a bit. After the punishment of Ananias and Sapphira, Acts 5:15 says,

“Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

On the other hand, after the resolution of the problem in Acts 6, Luke writes in verse 7,

“So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”

Luke as editor appears to see the process focus more positively than the person focus.

In TQM, one of the goals is to “drive out fear” — fear of judgment/blame/punishment. The presumption is that “the problem is the process rather than the person.” It seems to me that the Bible shows a preference towards this as well… especially in the New Testament church.

Reclaiming Jesus in Diversity

Mostly this post is to point you to read and consider an article of the same name on the Global Theology webpage.

I would like to add first, though, that the issue is quite relevant to Missions.

  • One of my students is writing a paper on expressing the message of the Gospel to Theravada Buddhists in Myanmar. The paper notes that differences between Christian and Buddhist doctrine are actually lesser problems. The bigger problems are that Buddhists there think of Christianity as foreign, Western, and colonialist. Christ is seen as a Western religious teacher, rather than Asian. Also Christian teachings as filtered through the Western Church has expressed itself theologically in the language and concerns of Europeans and Americans rather than Asians.
  • Some revolts against Christianity have sprung from misconceptions about what actually constitutes Christianity, and thus “Why is Christ”? An obvious one is the revolt by many African-Americans against Christianity in the 1960s and early 1970s based on the woefully misinformed view that Muslims were less gleefully involved in the African slave trade than Christians. Christian missionaries have also supported some social ills, such as in creating “caste churches” or encouraging ethnic churches (by drawing people away from of ethnically diverse churches) in an ‘end justifies the means’ attempt towards church growth through homogeneous grouping. This latter activity may have drawn some… but it has soured many more.

If Christ cannot be seen as representing all groups within humanity, He cannot be seen as representing humanity and providing hope for humanity. If Christ cannot be seen as providing hope for all humanity, than Christianity certainly is not for all peoples.

Anyway, before this becomes a full post, I will stop here and recommend you visit Reclaiming Jesus in Diversity.

I suppose this also leads back to my book for Bible School students— Ministry in Diversity: Applied Cultural Anthropology for a Multicultural World.