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.
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.