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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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.

 

Christmas and “The Gift of Garigolli”

This is a follow-on of my previous post on the Golden Rule and how it is affected in cross-cultural situations. If you haven’t yet, you can read the post HERE.

An interesting story that points this out is “The Gift of Garigolli” by Cyril M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl. It can be found in an anthology “Critical Mass,” published in 1977, among other places. It is science fiction, but in doing so it takes to an extreme case a difference of cultures making it (nearly) impossible to apply The Golden Rule, or The Great Commandment, in a way that is teleologically or contextually ethical.

It has been years since I read the story. However, the story is about microscopic aliens that have come to earth for research, I believe. However, part of their protocol is to do more than the National Park Service concept of “Please take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.” In their culture, since they benefited from their hosts, they must leave behind a gift. A good cultural value. The problem was, being microscopic, that were unable to communicate with humans, and could not figure out what these giant creatures (us) would appreciate. The aliens understood that a gift was not really a gift unless it was recognized as a boon to the recipient.  Early attempts were a failure as humans failed to even notice the attempts of gift-giving. Humans were in fact totally unaware that they were sharing space with extraterrestrials.

Eventually, through some experimenting and a bit of dumb luck, the aliens made something that humans recognized as a wonderful thing. The aliens satisfied the requirements of their culture and they were finally able to leave.

It is still under copyright, I am pretty sure, so I can’t point you to a webpage to read it. Too bad, but I don’t want to spoil the story. It also has an interesting second “parable” of sorts regarding a plastics manufacturing executive and how his ethics and aesthetics are driven by economics. I don’t think his perspective is uncommon.

Anyway, it will be Christmas in three days. It is a time of giving and receiving gifts. It is a time to remember God’s great gift to us. It is also a time, I believe, to remember that a gift has failed to be a gift until it is recognizably a blessing to the recipient.

If Jesus born over 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, Judea, is a gift for all people, how can we help people understand that it is indeed a gift?

If we are supposed to express God’s love to others, and yet fail to do so in a way that people can recognize and appreciate, have we truly expressed God’s love?

 

The Golden Rule in Cultural Application

The Golden Rule is the term often used for the command of Jesus in Matthew 7:12:

“Whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them.”

This positive form is also balanced by what is sometimes called the Silver Rule that says almost the same thing but from a negative sense. It may not be fair to suggest that one is “gold” and the other “silver.” In fact, one version of Jesus’ command is written in the “silver” format. This is found in Didache 1:3:

“Do not do to others, what you yourself would not want done to you.”

This rule, in both of its forms, provides a valuable guide and benchmark for ethical behavior. It would be, in fact, quite an amazing thing to see Christians (of any flavor) make an honest attempt to live according to this rule.

That being said, the rule is not as simple as it first appears when it comes to cross-cultural applications. Let me give a couple of examples.

Example 1.  I teach in the Philippines and do in fact enjoy it. I get to learn much from my students who come from many different countries— mostly in Asia. But there are some interesting challenges at times. For example, I have a number of students from Myanmar. In Myanmar, teachers are highly respected (a good thing, I think). In an attempt to demonstrate respect to their teachers, they listen very quietly and never ask questions. After all, to ask questions is to suggest that the teacher did a poor job in his/her instruction.

For me, on the other hand, I like students to ask questions. It makes the class more interesting, and gives me an opportunity to learn and grow, along with the students. Additionally, I feel that asking questions is a sign of respect. In their asking, they are showing that they are paying attention, and care about what I am talking about.

Thus, the Golden (and Silver) Rule is challenged a bit. How I want to be treated is quite different than how another may want to be treated.

Example 2.  This is based on an old story that contrasts the Asian and American attitudes regarding hospitality. Consider the figures below (from my book, “Ministry in Diversity,”

The first sketch shows an American staying in a Filipino household.

 

The second sketch shows a Filipino in an American household.

In both cases, the host is applying the Golden Rule with the guest. However, in both cases, there is a misfire.

These examples are not to suggest that there is an inherent problem with the Rule. However, one does have to take a step inward before going outward. In Example One, both myself as a teacher and one from Myanmar want to be treated with respect. That is the commonality where the Golden Rule applies. However, it must be filtered through culture to identify how such respect would be demonstrated.  In the second example, both hosts desire to be hospitable, and both guests desire to be treated with hospitality. However, how such hospitality is carried out so that it is recognized and appreciated, is again mediated by culture.

These are in no sense the only examples of this. If I ask someone to come to a celebration I am holding, I would like the person to think about it, check his schedule, and then tell me definitively whether he can come or not, when he knows for sure. Because of that, I am tempted to do the same thing. However, in some cultures that is highly insulting. Rather, the proper response is to immediately accept the offer, and then only later, regretfully, back out. Again, the Golden Rule applies (I want to be shown honor, and to express honor) but I must understand how this is demonstrated in that culture.

Can think of some other examples??

Consider an implication of this. One can follow the “letter of the law” by knowing oneself. However, to follow it teleologically and contextually (despite what some Christian Ethics books imply, Deontological Ethics is not the same as Christian Ethics), one must understand the other person as well.

 

 

Four Books I am Reading Now

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I don’t buy a lot of books. The availability of Christian books that I am interested in here in the Philippines is limited. I also have limited resources. So I really feel fortunate when I ordered four books that were delivered a few weeks ago. All four I have found to be very useful. I don’t read cover to cover very often, I am not a reading ‘machine’ as some I know, but it looks like I am on a trajectory to reading all four completely.

  1.  “The Minister as Diagnostician: Personal Problems in Pastoral Perspective” by Paul W. Pruyser (1976). This was my least risky purchase. We have a Pastoral Counseling center here and we train in Clinical Pastoral Education. Pruyser’s book is written from the perspective of a psychologist at the Menninger Clinic, but for church ministers. He noted that pastors training in hospital chaplaincy tended to utilize the diagnostic language (and to a limited extent criteria) of psychologists. He suggested that there are diagnostic categories that are more appropriate, and more within the skill set of ministers. The language choices he uses I don’t find particularly intuitive. However, the seven basic categories for diagnosis I believe are quite useful. Some have noted the challenge of applying these categories in practice, but I believe Pruyser’s work is a good starting point. Looking forward to reading the entire, short, book.
  2. One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization” by Jackson Wu (2015). This was my second safest choice. I enjoy Wu’s posts, many of which are related to this book, so I was pretty sure it would something I would find valuable. It has proven to be so far. I suppose I am curious about the title which speaks of “Biblical Contextualization” while the body of the book speaks of two types of contextualization– “Exegetical Contextualization” and “Cultural Contextualization.” Perhaps the author is linking Biblical with Exegetical, or the two contextualizations are seen to constitute “Biblical Contextualization.” Or maybe, the publisher chose the title. This is far less than a complaint… simply a comment. Positively, it looks at contextualization from a more Asian perspective. Living here in the Philippines, that is important to me. Additionally, it seeks to move from theoretical models of contextualization to a practical path to contextualization.
  3. “SCM Studyguide: Theological Reflection” by Judith Thompson and Stephen Pattison (2008). This was more of a leap of faith. In clinical pastoral care, we seek theological reflection in our trainees. Many struggle. Far too often, what is thought of as theological reflection is little more than verse-dropping (“This case reminds me of Psalm 23”). Other times, there is a failure to be truly reflective– simply reiterating what one already believes. This book is well-structured and deals with a number of forms of theological reflection. These methods are thoroughly orthodox in that the book does not advocate a “create your own theology” view. It seeks to connect and relate one’s faith tradition with experience. Already I find it useful, and am incorporating some of the ideas in a chapter on this topic in our upcoming book, “The Dynamics of Pastoral Care”– a sequel to “The Art of Pastoral Care.”
  4. “SCM Studyguide: Pastoral Theology.” by Margaret Whipp (2015). This book is done by the same publishing house as the previous one, and is a part of the same book series. The series is Anglican, and while the examples used in both books tend to draw from this tradition, they are broadly applicable to other Christians. This book I have only gotten into the earliest chapters, but so far I find it very valuable.  The previous book, Theological Reflection, is more structured, and I like structure. However Pastoral Theology as a subject is far less structured than many other categories of theology (systematic, biblical, philosophical, etc.), so I can hardly complain. Again, this book I am already finding inspirational for our training programs here, as well as for our newest book. Looking forward to finishing it.