Internationalization and Localization of Theology. Part 3


Localization is the process of taking a video game whose file structure and user interface has already been “internationalized” (as mentioned in the previous post) and adapting it to be understandable, immersive, and entertaining in a new cultural setting (market). Doing so should not make it feel like two players in two different markets are playing two different games.

An obvious part of the process is Translation into the language of the new setting. Of course, it is far more than just translating the words… it involves making the translation sound natural… local. This also may require local jargon or turns of phrase. This should also show itself in accent (for audio). Of course, it is not wrong to have stilted language or foreign sounding accent when appropriate. When two nations battle in a game it is reasonable that they would speak and sound different. This is even more true of extraterrestrial beings. However, these decisions should match up the expectations of the player.

This is not always easy. In Chinese lore, there are Jiangshi. These are “jumping vampires” or “jumping zombies.” These can look quite humorous to Western viewers, who have no experience with them. However, it is possible, I suspect, to bring the feeling across the cultural gap… but it takes both knowledge and wisdom. Here in the Philippines, there are many legendary creatures— including Aswang, Manananggal, Duwende, Capre, Tiyanak, and many more. I remember watching an episode of the TV show Grimm. In that episode they were dealing with an Aswang that was living in Oregon in the United States. The Aswang was clearly identified as foreign— of Filipino origin, and tied to a Filipino family living in Oregon. Yet, it felt quite fell localized to Oregon and the United States, because it felt quite natural as a foreign creature in a local setting. Also they did a good job of portraying the Aswang in a way that is horrible and terrifying, just as it would be understood in the Philippines. Of course, part of making this work was the upfront worldbuilding. In Grimm, there is a blending of the natural and supernatural, the mundane and the fantastical. Much of the supernatural and the fantastical in Grimm came from Western sources (like werewolves and European fairytales). The Aswang is an Asian character, but the show was set up to make room for it… and it worked.

Some can be more difficult, of course. I love the Japanese animated movie, Spirited Away. It is beautiful. However, many of the creatures and imagery in it did not make sense to me. My children, who are much more aware of Japanese folk beliefs than I, were able to explain quite a bit of it to me. Still, I remain an outsider. Wonderful movie, but on some level, I am well aware of its foreignness to me (or my foreignness to it) despite the admirable job of translation and dubbing.

Frankly, however, when you think about it, it is not so much true that the game is localized to the new market culture. The world of the game does not change necessarily to fit the “foreign” player. Rather the world of the game changes so that the “foreign” player can feel like a local in the foreign world of the game. For example, my daughters love playing Genshin Impact. It is a game set in a world that does not exist on earth. However, the world it creates FEELS quite Eastern Asia. In the English-friendly versions of the game, the map does not change (except in making sure it is readable). Many of the characters maintain names that sound foreign. The localization doesn’t make the world of Genshin Impact feel more American. Rather, it makes the American feel more like a local while playing the game in the world there created.

Now let’s bring this to theology. I suggested that in the process of Internationalization, the goal is to identify the core factors of Christian theology and those features that are more cultural. It can be hard to identify which is which. However, I suggested that, in line with video games, the core features are more in the objectives, characters, and narrative. So for example, when portraying Jesus to a new culture, that part should not change. Jesus is who Jesus is. Making Him a Marxist Revolutionary for one culture, a dispassionate contemplative in another, and a Neo-conservative Capitalist in another will be flawed. Three different images of Jesus tend to make the different contextualizations of Christianity fail to resemble each other. One should hold onto the narrative, the characters, and the objections… much like in internationalizaiton in a game.

In localization, the goal is not make Christianity mirror the recipient culture. That will lead to syncretism and essentially a “state religion” or “culture religion.” The same thing happens when Christianity mirrors the missionary’s culture. The story of the Bible will always be a little foreign to all of us because its narrative is founded in cultures that no longer exist today. To remove the cultural elements removes the worldbuilding. The art of localizing is in making it feel natural for a person in the recipient culture to enter the narrative of the Christian faith as a local. The story interacts with the person in ways that may be unique to him, but natural.

Salvation in recent years has often devolved into a short statement of belief and a prayer. And it is usually built around guilt. There is nothing wrong with this in itself. Guilt is very much a valid problem that Christianity speaks to. However, it is far from the only one. The Bible describes the blessing that God seeks to bless His people with in many different ways. Some will resonate with certain one more than others.

For those who feel guilty, God gives innocence

For those who feel shame, God gives honor

For those for feel conflict, God gives harmony

For those who feel trapped, God gives liberty

For those who feel lost, God gives meaning and direction

… and the list can keep going.

When we lock into the propositional side of Christianity, we are commonly taking the story and then limiting it to a single culture’s values. I used the example of substitutionary atonement in the last post. The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is open for a wide variety of perspectives… and the gospels and epistles give written support to many of these. However, when a core issue is that the death of Christ is for atonement for our sins… there is often the unspoken, “and that is all His death was for.” Focusing on the narrative opens up broader points for attachment to local cultures.

Does this solve all of our problems? Will we be able to localize successfully now? Not necessarily. In fact, problems are pretty much guaranteed. But this is where the next step comes in (along with roles). That is in the next post.

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