Internationalization and Localization of Theology— Part 2


A critical step for converting video games to new culture/market is Internationalization. On initial consideration, it seems as if this is unnecessary. Why would one need to “internationalize” so as to ‘localize.” However, this step is needed unliess one wants to make the localization process incredibly distressing.

I must note that I am not a programmer (the only two languages I have ever programmed in are FORTRAN and Commodore-BASIC— pretty old-timey). However, there is a certain logic here. A game has storyline/plot, objectives, characters, language, scenery/scenes, mapping, and so forth and so on. For the game to be effectively localized to a new culture (consider taking a Japanese game and making it appreciated in the United States), many key things should not change. Storyline/plot, objectives, characters, map, scenes, and so forth probably shouldn’t change, or at least they shouldn’t change much. However, some things need to change a lot. The language (narration, dialogue, audio clips, street signs and more) need to change. While characters should stay the same generally, their names may need to change (but not always). Some plot points may need to be explained or modified somewhat to make it more understandable. Music may need to change (or not). Famously, Tetris kept its Russian folk music theme song as it spread around the world, but that doesn’t work.

Changing too many key elements would undermine the game… or at least cause it to lose its “DNA.” That is, an American playing a game should feel like they are playing the same game that is played in Japan, or in Germany, or in Zimbabwe. Change too much and it is no longer “the same game.” Change too little, and the foreigness can be distracting, non-immersive, or even incomprehensible.

To internationalize, the game is structured so that the core elements are kept constant, while the culturally dependent aspects are put in separate files. Additionally, the constant aspects are configured so as to accommodate localization. For example, if there is written text… the written text should be in a file that can be changed for different markets. However, the imagery that doesn’t change needs to be configured so that different languages with different scripts will still have ample room to be read. Ultimately, a good internationalization sets things up so that localization can be done so that it is local and immersive, while maintaining the same identifiable gameplay.

In theology there needs to be a similar thing going on for localization. There needs to be a genuine attempt to identify what is core and what is non-core.

Yes. This is not easy. However, part of the difficulty is that we as Christians have never been that good at identifying core issues. One might say that we have done better at one time with the great historical creeds of the past. And perhaps this is true… but the temptation to spread it out and nitpick on things tends to cause things to get to the point it is hard to identify what is critical and what is not.

<I AM GOING TO USE A LENGTHY EXAMPLE OF CHRISTIAN FUNDAMENTALISM TO SHOW SOME OF THE CHALLENGES WE MAY HAVE IN INTERNATIONALIZATION. IF THIS IS OF NO INTEREST TO YOU… sorry…>

Let me try an example for you. I was raised up a Christian Fundamentalist. Christian Fundamentalism has its roots in American Protestantism. While it seeks in many ways to stand out counterculturally from the broader American society, in many ways it is a product of that same culture. I don’t generally use that term to describe myself… yet in the classic sense of the term, I feel it may still apply to me. In the classic sense of the term, there were identified certain things that were seen as fundamental faith positions. In 1910, the following were set up as Fundamentals by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church.

  • Biblical inspiration and the infallibility of scripture
  • Virgin birth of Jesus
  • Belief that Christ’s death was the atonement for sin
  • Bodily resurrection of Jesus
  • Historical reality of the miracles of Jesus

If I remember right, when I was young, we also had the Trinity (Oneness of God in Three Persons) as a Fundamental belief. Not sure why that wasn’t included. Anyway, if one adds that one, you have six.

But let’s consider a couple of the challenges of using these to provide a basis for internationalization of Theology.

  1. Temptation to keep adding to the list. As time goes on, new concerns come up. As such, some things become less relevant, while other things become more relevant,. In the list above, the Virgin birth of Jesus seems pretty out of place. After all, if one accepts the “infallibility” of Scripture, and “the Historical reality of the miracles of Jesus,” it hardly seems worth mentioning the Virgin Birth. Perhaps it could be justified on the grounds that it stands against Adoptionism— a theological view that pops up in history here and there. However, when the list was made, the “Search for the Historical Jesus” was intense. As such, many thought it needed to be specially singled out. However, as time went on, other issues pushed to the front and those led to more “fundamentals,” For example, some added that Genesis 1 must be interpreted in a very literal (seven 24-hour period sort of literal) manner. I can see how we may say that “God is Creator and Designer and Sustainer of the Heavens and the Earth” is a Fundamental issue. But the question of “literalness” seems to be an argument over genre… not particularly fundamental. Just today, I was reading an article by Jackson Wu regarding the reaction of some religious leaders that Saddleback Church has ordained three women. Some of the language used by Tim Keller, John Piper, and D.A. Carson who were discussing this topic showed how deeply important it was to them that women should not be pastors. The article is HERE. Some others that agree with them in spirit but who are more vitriolic in language suggested that a church that has a ordained woman is not a church at all. Since there really is an awful lot of wiggle room in Biblical interpretation in this area (without even getting into the question of culture), this seems very much like an area where “good people can disagree.” However, the upheavals in society regarding gender roles and norms in recent decades has led to a hardlining (and demonizing) of beliefs, such that it looks almost as if this is a new “fundamental,” despite lacking a good theological basis for its prominence.
  2. What may be fundamental in one culture, may not necessarily be fundamental in another culture. A good example of this is the 3rd fundamental above… “The belief that Christ’s death was the atonement for sin.” Is this true? Yes, I definitely believe it is. Is it fundamental? In a sense it is… but in a sense it isn’t. What in the world do I mean by this? Well, the Bible does teach that Jesus died for our sins. But the Bible says that Jesus died for many reasons. Perhaps the most well-known passage in the Bible (John 3:16-17) says that Jesus was sent to us because of God’s great love for us (verse 16) and so that people will believe (verse 17). Of course, one could read those verses through a substitutionary atonement lens (God loved the world so much that He sent Jesus to die as an atoning sacrifice for our sins… For God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn it but to cover the sins of those who believe). However, it could be just as reasonable to swap it around and say that God’s great desire was to show us how much He loves us, and so chose sacrifice as a way of demonstrating that love in a way that we can identify. I would argue that both statements are true, and one is not necessarily more fundamental than the other. And when one brings in Honor-Shame theology utilizing the Biblical language of Adoption, and Family of God, a whole other perspective is there that is equally fundamental. (One can find other themes in the Bible regarding Christ’s death that are also arguably fundamental.) Of course, it is hard to know where to stop on this path. Going back to the ordaining women issue, if one is bringing Christian theology into a culture that is more gender egalitarian, is it “fundamental” to undermine this and promote a patriarchal structure? Maybe… maybe not. Certainly that is what has often been done here in the Philippines— a country where women have often had more power in society than in the US (including two being President of the Philippines). Yet many churches are horrified at that thought of women taking up prominent roles in church. This has come through both Catholic and Protestant missionaries. A local pastor went to one of our student’s parents to tell them that their daughter was “going to hell” (literally?) because she committed the sin of planting a church while being female. Is this a fundamental issue… or is it a cultural one driven by social conflicts?

Instead of adding other examples… creating even more discomfort… I would like to suggest something. In internationalizing theology, we should consider a more narrative approach rather than propositional approach. I know it has been popular to identify the “kerygma,” the core essence of the Gospel. However, the attempts to do that end up in expressions that tend to focus on contemporary theological concerns in a specific setting. A list of propositional truths commonly are really a list of statements that come from the results of debates in one cultural setting.

The core is the story. The Bible is the story of God… a love story in a sense. The leading characters, narrative and objectives are key. Changing the characters… changing the narrative,.. changing the objectives… these would destroy the “DNA” for the Christian message much as doing these would destroy the unique core of a video game.

I think the 3-culture model of contextualization has value. You can look AT THIS REGARDING THIS MODEL. It seeks to filter the message coming from the Missionary Culture (Culture A) through the “Biblical Culture” (Culture B) to get something that is somewhat ‘supracultural” that can be then contextualized (localized) into the Recipient Culture (Culture C). However, the question doesn’t go away. What is the core… what is supracultural? Charles Hodge felt, back in the 1800s, that slavery could not be seen as wrong in the sight of God because the Bible allowed it in the cultures in which it was written. Is that good theology? Does God allowing a certain practice to be done in a culture separated from ours by 2 to 3 millenia take precedence over God’s actions, and guidance to us as Christians? In the Biblical narrative, the Christian message is one of moving mankind from bondage to freedom. I would argue that it is this narrative that is at the heart of the Christian message— more “fundamental” to the core, the essence, the DNA of the Christian faith.

Will there be mistakes in this effort? Of course. MANY MANY MANY. But that is why there is dialogue in the process. In the next post (hopefully) I will suggest the roles in this process in the next installment.

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