“Enoughness” Part One

I was listening to the podcast “The Missions Podcast” (by ABWE). They had a guest, E.D. Burns, who wrote a book called “The Transcultural Gospel: Jesus Is Enough for Sinners in Cultures of Shame, Fear, Bondage, and Weakness.” I have not read the book, it just came out, but here are a few quick thoughts before I delve into a tangent.

  1. I liked his emphasis on “scandal” of the gospel. Burns seems to suggest that some proponents of contextualization (he focuses not on primary proponents so much as over-exuberant adopters) are so focused on making the gospel palatable that key challenges are ignored. This is certainly true in the Philippines where some presentations say, in essence, “Oh, you already believe the gospel fully— but you aren’t saved until you say this little prayer that I have here.” If there was no change of heart or mind, they were either already saved, or they are not saved in saying the prayer.
  2. I sort of like his reframing “Guilt-Innocence” in terms of “Guilt-Righteousness.” His argument was that Innocence means that one is NOT a lawbreaker, while Righteousness means that one is declared a lawkeeper (through imputation). I like the reframing, as I said, but I don’t care for the reason. I like Ladd’s perspective of Righteousness in terms of “Right Relationship With God.” As such, Righteousness is the opposite of a lot of the cultural motivators. Guilt is countered by righteousness (meeting the standards of God). Honor is countered by righteousness ((re)establishment of role as a chosen and welcome member of God’s family). Disharmony is countered by righteousness (removal of conflict with God). But then, if righteousness works for so many of the categories, maybe it is not useful to link righteousness to only one category. So maybe I don’t like this point.
  3. I liked his approach of sharing the gospel in a new culture by seeking to learn what the felt needs are within that culture. The gospel meets many needs— both real and felt. By discovering the felt needs, you honor the person, honor the culture, and honor the gospel (by embracing its breadth of transformation and needs-meeting). It helps ensure the gospel scratches where it itches.
  4. I don’t really get Burns’s bringing everything back to Adam and then pushing forward to the “Second Adam.” This may simply be a personal thing, but the illustration never had much of an impact on me. I certainly know that Paul uses it and there is certainly nothing wrong with it. However, if after years and years of Bible reading, Sunday school and Bible classes, I have found this metaphor unenlightening, why would I assume that I am alone in this? I am glad I did not have gospel presented to me in that way.
  5. I was a bit concerned that there still was a bit of a tendency to see guilt as a superior or primary need. I felt that the conversants danced around it a bit. However, Burns appeared to argue that the metaphors used by Paul (especially in terms of law and guilt) drew deeply Jewish OT stories and images. This was used to suggest a bit of primacy of this metaphor and perhaps a transcultural nature to this metaphor. I couldn’t really see the point. First, most of the metaphors have an OT connection… not just one metaphor. I find adoption to be a strong metaphor in the NT. It isn:t made stronger or weaker if it was used in OT Jewish culture. Second, since much of the early church was connected to Jewish culture and writings, the use of these images in the NT, may not support a transcultural gospel, but a gospel presentation contextualized to Hellenistic Jews.

Since I have not read the book, I can’t say whether my comments (positive and negative) stand up. The book may clarify things. It certainly looks worthy of a read> But one term I liked was THE ENOUGHNESS OF THE GOSPEL.

While ENOUGHNESS is a made-up word, I think it holds a bit of usefulness in missions anthropology and contextualization of the gospel. Based on the podcast, I am pretty sure I am using the expression differently, but that is okay. I think Burns is saying that there is ENOUGH similarities between different cultures and people that the gospel message doesn’t need to be contextualized all that much. Probably some truth there, but I would like to play with the term… IN PART TWO.

Theology “Tests” in Localization

TestQuestionsBasis
RevelationHarmonious and Coherent with Scripture? Or Disonant, or “cherry-picked” from Scripture?Unity and Canonicity of the Bible
GodIs the God described within the theology, the God who is revealed? Is God worthy of worship, and relational in prayer?God as Object of Theology
CreationIs our relation to creation in line with it being God’s good creation? Is our relation to AlL people as to ones created in God’s image, and loved by God?God as Creator
Local ChurchIs it from the community, or from the outside, or single person? Is it accepted by and intelligible to the people?Priesthood of Believers
Universal ChurchIs it open to critique from the outside? Is it open to critique and dialogue with those outside?Catholicity and Unity of he Church
Spiritual FruitDoes the actions, attitudes, and motiviations of those who follow the theology allign with ethical Christian standards? Is the fruit of the spirit evidenced?Link between Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy
ResonanceDoes it “resonate” with the culture it exists in? Does it put into words, stories, images, and ideas questions being asked in the culture?God as Redeemer of Culture
TensionDoes it challenge the culture, seeking transformation? Or does it simply support or justify what is accepted in the culture?Fallenness of Man and Culture

Taken from my book “Ministry in Diversity” Table 10. These tests come from works by Bevans, Schreiter, Tracy, and others.

The final step of localizing a video game for a new market is Quality Control. The steps of Internationalization and Localization are meant to make a game that feels natural in a new market. I noted in the last post, the goal is not to make the game feel local, but rather to make the player feel like a local within the game. The game should feel comfortable and immersive to the players in the new market but still have the plot, characters, and objectives of the original game so that people all over the world can “feel” as if they are united as players of the same game.

But there will be mistakes. No work is ever done without mistakes, oversights, and more. In some cases, it may have been done right, but could be done better. My daughter showed me a well-known error in video game localization. In the orginal, Japanese, version of a game (I think it was one of the Pokemon games but I could be wrong), a character buys a rice ball, and then begins talking about how much he enjoys eating rice balls (I don’t remember the Japanese name). Here in the Philippines, there are many possible equivalents— Puto or Buchi come to mine. No problem. But in the American version, rice ball is traded for jelly doughnut. On first consideration this seems like a perfectly good localization. Jelly doughnuts are a nice hand-held sweet treat. It arguably could have worked. But there were a couple of problems— one obvious and one far more subtle. On the obvious side, the picture did not match up. The imagery was part of the game that was held constant in internationalization. It was not changing in localization. While the image did not clearly identify what the food was, it looked quite a bit like a rice ball, and not at all like a jelly doughnut. That pulls one out of the immersiveness in the game. The words don’t line up with the visuals.

A far more subtle problem was in that the change was unnecessary. As I said, localization does not mean making the story look like it is happening in the new culture (such as making a game that takes place in Medieval France, now take place in 21st century Chicago). Rather, localization means making the game so that a person from Chicago will feel as comfortable there in the game world as someone from France, Brazil, or China. So turning a rice ball into a jelly doughnut is sort of like changing the visiting of the Great Wall of China to visiting the Grand Canyon in the game… or turning all of the sushi bars into taco stands. It is an unnecessary change and looks like the localizers don’t really understand what is important for the gameplayers. It is a bit akin to a foreign preacher coming to the Philippines and constantly bringing up famous Filipinos (Manny Pacquio, Pres. Duterte, Vice Ganda, Sharon Cuneta, etc.) or cultural artifacts (balut, adobo, bahay kubo, barong tagalog, etc) in a fruitless attempt to make the sermon “feel local.” IF THE MESSAGE IS NOT DRAWN FROM GOD’S WORD, AND DOES NOT DIRECTLY SPEAK TO THE FEARS AND HOPES OF THE AUDIENCE, IT WILL NEVER BE TRULY LOCALIZED.

In video game localization, quality control is done a number of ways (far above my knowledge) but most famously through lots and lots of gameplay. Just as the saying, “The proof of the pudding is in the tasting,” the proof of the localization is in the playing— by locals.

And this brings up the issue of role. Who does the steps.

  1. Internationalization. Much of this really must be done by the programmers in the home country. They have the code. They know the game. However, it may help to have consultation from outside. Ethnocentrism and mono-perspectivity of the programmers and gaming company can make it so that they don’t have a clear understanding of what aspects of their game are universal, and what things are culturally distinctive. So dialogue with those from other cultures (especially of potential markets is useful). If we say that the initial game market is “A” or “a,” and the future market in a different culture is “B” or “b,” then at Internationalization, the Dialogue/Partnership could be described as “Ab”— the home culture dominates this process, but needs inputs from the potential new market.
  2. Localization. Localization is best done by those from the market culture “B” who are already comfortable with original culture “A.” They should then be bicultural in a sense, but fully immersed and enculturated or acculturated in culture “B.” However, those from culture “A” have a role. After all, part of their role is to help the localizers really understand the lore, characterization, plot, and objectives of the game. These can be subtle things. Of course, to be effective in this, those from Culture A, but also be pretty comfortable in Culture B;, to be able to communicate these subtleties effectively. Still, this Dialogue/Partnership could be described as “aB”— the local culture dominates the process, but with effective communication going on to ensure nuances are not lost in translation.
  3. Quality Control. This process would be dominated by locals of the new market. After all, they are the ones who must feel comfortable and entertained in this new version of the game. Still, the original creators of the game should be part of the process to make sure that the game still “feels” like the original game. Again, this Dialogue/Partnership could be described as “aB.”

This dialogue applies to localization as well. There is need for dialogue between the “Missionary culture” and the “Recipient culture” at each level. At the Internationalization level, outsider perspectives are needed to make sure that theology that is comfortable in “A” (Missionary Culture) is not being passed along to Culture “B” with too much of that Missionary Culture embedded in it. This can most easily happen when theology is passed on with focus on proposition rather than narrative. I noted that case previously of “The Fundamentals” where the death of Christ (and universally relevant story) is boiled down into a limited explanation (substitutionary atonement for sin) that, while true, does a disservice to the broad implications that flow from the story, as well as the wide variety of canonical statements that exist. We want our contextualized theology to be “Biblical.’ However, as Jackson Wu (in the article I referenced and linked to in my previous post) described a statement of a friend of his, there is an unconscious tendency of “We do it because it is Biblical” to become “It is Biblical because we do it.” Culture A theologians need to fight paternalistic tendencies and listen openly to the challenge of Culture B theologians.

I remember when I was attending a Baptist college where we learned Baptist doctrines and theology. In so many cases my professor would express a Baptist doctrine, point to the Scriptural and Theological basis, and it is clear, understandable, and cohesive. They would often contrast this with perspectives of some other groups that appear pretty eisegetic and convoluted. However, then there were certain topics of Baptist doctrine where the professor would suddenly shift. The argument is no longer clear and cohesive but having a muddy dance around Scripture to justify it. One of those examples was the Baptist predilection for having a single pastor in a church… rather than having several pastors or a board of elders. Even as a 19 year old I realized that this was an area where my professor had drifted into “It is Biblical because that is the way we do it.” (By the way, I don’t care whether there is one pastor, many pastors, or no pastors. But this appears to be more of a cultural issue than an issue of sound Biblical interpretation.) Without outsider perspectives, there is a tendency to keep slipping into the same ruts.

Of course, this works both ways. When one looks at Bevans work on evaluating contextual theologies (“Fair or Foul”) he notes a few things relevant to this post. For one, the theology should come from the users. It should not come from an outsider or a single prophetic figure. Ideally, it should come from the community of faith. In the way I am describing it, the localization process is driven by locals. It may not be “from the masses” but it would come from a group within the church culture. A second thing is that the localized theology should challenge and be willing to be challenged by outsiders. Much like in video games, there needs to be challenging dialogue from both sides. A third thing is that it should be understandable and utilized by the populace. In other words, it should not be narrow and esoteric. If it is localized, it should be felt as if at home in the church and the church in it. This is in line with video game localization where the tests are Quality Control where it is evaluated by actual use, and by sales (its use and acceptance by the general gamer population).

I think I have dealt with this topic enough. But I do think that the process of video game localization has value in the localizing of theology. Among these values are:

  1. Recognition that one must identify aspects of theology that must be embraced as universal… in that removing it would its universality across cultures.
  2. See that the distinctive “DNA” of a theology is found more in its characters, plot, and objectives. Propositional statements are more likely to be developed from the stories to give answers to needs that are based in church history or church locality. As such, the Biblical story should be held constant as well as key characters and objectives in the story. These should not be localized by being changed, but presented so that people in different cultures can feel at home in that outsider story.
  3. Theology needs to be evaluated as a two-way street… developed dialogically and challenged dialogically. Its successful localization is determined to the extent that it is successfully used and understood by Christians in that culture.
  4. The church, living out its theology, should look different in different settings. However, it should feel as if it is a common faith worshiping a common God— Savior and Lord.

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.

Internationalization and Localization of Theology. Part 1

I am not a video game person. I am pretty much limited to “Match 3” games. I was addicted to Bards Tale back in the 1980s. However, I have been talking to my daughter who is very interested in video games. She is interested in playing them, but also has a considerable interest in their development— especially in terms of the process of voice acting and directing, and the localization of video games. The latter of these, localization of video games, has do with the process of taking a game that was developed in and for Culture A, and make it localized and immersive in Culture B.

As I was looking into that process, I was interested in a number of aspects of it that arguably may relate to the localization (as part of contextualization) of theology. The most interesting part of it, to me at least, is the step called Internationalization. I can see how it could be seen as part of the process known as the “Three Culture Model.” However, I feel like there is enough differences, that it is worth exploring further.

In general, Internationalization is the step that allows easy Localization. Without this step, the development of a localized version of a video game can be laborious. Also, it may open the door for losing key aspects of gameplay that would ultimately ruin what made the game great.

In the next few posts I will explore this process. The image below shows the process very simplistically. In reality, there is nothing really linear about the process.

Cultural Patterns and Social Motivators

Robert and Christopher Strauss in their book, “Four Overarching Patterns of Culture: A Look at Common Behavior” speaks of four “Cultural Patterns.” These are:

  • Justice
  • Honor
  • Reciprocity
  • Harmony

I find these to be useful categories for a framework. Of course, the test of categories in a framework is its usefulness, not its correctness. So if one person has a 2 category system (hot versus cold climate cultures from Sarah Lanier) and another has 10 (like the “clash of civilizations” model from Samuel Huntington) it is not a matter of who is correct, but rather which model is more useful in which setting. Of course, if a model appears to have neither clear basis in reality, nor usefulness (such as the “color races” of the Urantia Book— red, orange, blue, green, indigo…), then it is understood that such a model is discounted. Lanier’s model often does hold true, and is a useful starting point in initial contact, such as in tourism. Huntington’s model, I am not so sure about… but in theory may have value in political science.

For me, these four categories (justice, honor, reciprocity, harmony) look useful. These, however, also look a lot like another model, one by Jayson Georges et al, and promoted in www.honorshame.com. It has three categories. These are cultures that center on:

  • Guilt/Innocence
  • Shame/Honor
  • Fear/Power

I claim no expertise in either model, so I am just doing some speculation here. Obviously, “Justice” in the Strauss Model lines up fairly well with “Guilt/Innocence,” much as “Honor” with “Shame/Honor.” But Fear/Power doesn’t fit at all with the Strauss model. Nothing wrong with that, but is there an underlying reason?

Looking through the materials on the Honor/Shame website, it does seem as if the Fear/Power is tacked on a bit. It feels as if it was added more for theological reasons (Christus Victus, or Power Encounter) than for sound cultural reasons. In fact, their own cultural test shows very few places on earth where Fear/Power dominates, despite the how ubiquitous animism is in much of the world. Additionally, I live in the Philippines where the 3 category model doesn’t work that well. The test on their website shows the Philippines as vacillating depending on region and age between shame/honor and guilt/innocence.

From the Strauss Four Patterns model, things work much better for the Philippines. Even though the Philippines does prefer ascribed status over achieved status (a characteristic of an Honor-focused societies. However, one of the most recognized cultural values in the Philippines is “Utang na Loob.” While it translates literally to something akin to “Debt of the heart,” it is closer to the American idea of “Implied Debt” or “Implied Obligation.” It strongly links to the common relationship of Patron-Benefactor. The patronage system and implied obligation are very much characteristics of the Reciprocity Pattern. A similar thing comes to mind for me in parts of Eastern and Southeastern Asia where Harmony is a core pattern supported by Daoist, Confucian, and Shintoist thought.

So am I saying that I think the Four Pattern model is better than the Three? Probably not. My thought at the moment is to look at the Four Pattern model as being more about cultural types, and the Three Model as more about social or cultural motivators.

Think of personality tests for a moment. Tests commonly come in two flavors— type tests and trait tests. Type tests include AB Test, MBTI, Enneagram, and more. In each of these, the test taker ultimately is put into a category along with a lot of other people. These tests are imprecise for this very reason, but are often more practical and intuitive. Trait tests are like PRF (that looks at 20 different psychogenic needs and figures out percentiles for each in the test-taker) or the Big Five (that looks at spectra for five major qualities). These tests are more precise but not as intuitive. For example, if I tell a MBTI fan that I am an ISTJ, or perhaps I share that I am a Type 5 in Enneagram, the hearer would already know a fair bit about me. On the other hand, if I say that I am 58percentile on Abasement, and 37percentile on Harmavoidance, (and then different percentiles on all of the other traits) it is hard to wrap one’s head around it.

So maybe the three items, guilt, shame, and fear, can be thought of as traits of cultures (social motivators) rather than types of cultures. Trait tests are used in cultures as well, including Lingenfelter and Mayer’s Model of Basic Values, or Erin Myer’s Culture Map.

So maybe we should see Justice, Honor, Reciprocity, and Harmony define useful types of culture, but each one have societal motivators of guilt, honor, and fear to varying degrees.

At least this is where I am at the moment. This may change. I certain welcome others; thoughts.

Evaluating Contextual Theologies. Part 3

Third and final part of the chapter that I have written on this topic for my (work-in-progress) book on Missions Theology.

Contextual Theology as “Good Scandal”

“Good Scandal” is not another test or sub-test, but a different way of looking at the third test— the test of culture. A good contextual theology should connect to the culture… but it should also challenge it, having a prophetic role in it.5

David Tracy notes that religion is supposed to be rebellious, in conflict with the culture it is in. The reason is that religion (personifying it for a moment) is supposed to see the culture around it with clear eyes. It is then supposed to say to that culture that there is an Ultimate Reality that is above and beyond what one experiences within the culture. A religion claims access, on some level, to that Ultimate Reality, and points out its clear superiority to the flawed and failed reality around. When a religion stops seeking to challenge that culture and instead simply encourages and maintains that culture (indeed becoming an “opiate of the masses” and a maintainer of the existing power structure) it has failed in a profound way.

6

Darrell Whiteman has noted that contextualization seeks to offend for the right reasons, and not for the wrong reasons.7

This ties to the concept in the New Testament of “Offense” or the Greek term “Skandalon.  Paul uses the term both positively and negatively. One should not create an unnecessary offense. However, the Gospel will always, in every culture, be offensive on some important level.

Recall Paul in Athens. Paul used Athenian legends to express the concept of God (much like John used “Logos”) rather than drawing from Jewish writings and imagery. However, after expressing the nature of God in a way that fits in many ways with the sub-culture of the Areopagus, Paul then begins talking of Jesus in terms of bodily resurrection… a scandalous concept to Greek philosophers steeped in Platonist thought.

Jesus fit into the culture of Judea so well that Judas had to single Him out with a kiss so that the local authorities could arrest Him. He also told stories and provided ethical guidance very much in line with Jewish culture and thought. Yet, in key ways, such as describing God as Father, and Himself as the “Son of Man” were scandalous… to say nothing of a Messiah who was more a Suffering Servant than a Conquering Hero, and describing the Kingdom of God having a universal quality that may well include the enemies of the Jewish people.

Harvie Conn quotes Harvey Smit “Dr. Harvey Smit outlines two features of this approach to the idea of offense that have relevance for our questions. He calls them ‘two lines which are in tension”: (1) All unnecessary offense must be avoided as something that endangers another’s faith; (2) there is an essential offense that must never be avoided, for it is only by overcoming this skandalon that a person comes to faith.”8

Offending for the right reasons is good. Ultimately, the chief offense is Christ. When I was in Taiwan, I was visiting a church in which a visiting minister was speaking. He teaches in Taiwan and in Indonesia. He notes that when his comparative religions class gets to Christian doctrine… especially about the death, resurrection, and atonement of Christ… the most common response from Muslim and Buddhist students comes down to something like “This is the craziest thing I have ever heard.” Now, if one wanted to, these challenging concepts could be contextualized to make them more palatable to Muslim and Buddhist thought. Islam does have a role for sacrifice, and Buddhism may see a sort of redemption passing through a path of suffering. However, the offense on some level should always be there. When Christ ceases to offend on some profound level… we are following the wrong Christ. …For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.   -I Corinthians 1:21-23 ….but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone,  just as it is written,
         “BEHOLD, I LAY IN ZION A STONE OF STUMBLING AND A ROCK OF OFFENSE,
         AND HE WHO BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.” -Romans 9:31-33

Does this mean that we set up a little check list and if one of these areas doesn’t appear to pass, then we know the theology is false? The Christian life is never that simple. However, the further a theology drifts away from passing these tests, the more concern we should have.

Conclusions

For those reading this who come from the Protestant tradition, it is worth noting that much of the Protestant Reformation came from an attempt to apply Contextual Theology. While some arguments were more about Biblical interpretation, much of it had to do with contextualization or localization of theology. These include:

  • What languages can the Bible be translated into?
  • What languages can be used in preaching and liturgy?
  • Who (and where) must hold ecclesiastical power?
  • What role should icons have in worship?

I think most Protestants would think that the contextual theology that developed in the Protestant Reformation was healthy. For Roman Catholics, Vatican II may provide an equivalent circumstance, regional expressions of that denomination were granted the privilege to localize in a number of ways.

Chapter Thirteen Endnotes

1 For example, you can read this in the first line Stephen Bevans’ article, “Contextual Theology.” https://na.eventscloud.com/file_uploads/ff735620 c88c86884c33857af8c51fde_GS2.pdf.

2 Merold Westphal, “Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith,Perspectives” in Continental Philosophy No. 21 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002), 189. Listen to his interview on that podcast. https://homebrewchristianity.com/2015/07/30/merold-westphal-on endofreligion/.

3 Stephen B. Bevans, Essays in Contextual Theology (Boston, MA: Brill, 2018), ch 3.

4 Gordon Kaufmann, God the Problem (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), 82-.

5 Robert H. Munson, Theo-storying: Reflection on God, Narrative and Culture (Baguio City, Philippines, MM-Musings, 2016), Ch. 9.

6 David Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity.: Hermeneutics, Religion and Hope (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

7 Darrell Whiteman, “Contextualization: The Theory, the Gap, the Challenge” International Bulletin of Mission Research, January 1997, 2-7, 3-4.

8 Harvie M. Conn, Eternal World and Changing Worlds, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1992), 237.

Evaluating Contextual Theologies. Part 2

This is part of a chapter of a book I am writing on Contextual Theology. Still a work in progress. I will finish one day.

Fair of Foul

All Theology is Contextual. So when I speak of the “foul lines” of contextual theology, I mean the “foul lines” of ALL theology. The use of the term “foul lines” as it pertains to contextual theology, comes from a baseball analogy from Stephen Bevans, who in turn draws it from Justo Gonzales. Of course other sports analogies could be used. In bounds versus out of bounds in basketball of soccer could be used, for example. I will be returning to Bevans later. It implies that there is a wide range of theologies that may be acceptable, or fair, or orthodox. But there are also some that are not. All theology is either well-contextualized or poorly contextualized. However, that also means that both orthodox theology and heterodox theology can be well-contextualized or poorly contextualized.

Ultimately, this means that there are two challenges.

  1.  The test of contextualization.
  2. The test of orthodoxy

The two tests are muddy and inter-related. They are muddy in that it is hard to determine definitively the lines (the “foul lines”) between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. and between well-or-poorly contextualized. Additionally, contextualization has an effect on orthodoxy. In fact, being too well contextualized leads to heterodoxy. This is because good theology ALWAYS challenges, in some way, the culture it is in.

Ignoring the question of contextualization in this post, how does one test orthodoxy? In the past, the answer was often answered in terms of alignment of the theology to creeds. Even for non-creedal groups, (such as I am part of) statements or articles of faith tend to be seen as orthodox (good doctrine) and divergence from such statements evidence heterodoxy (or bad doctrine).

But as soon as one acknowledges that all theology, along with all creeds and articles of faith are culturally embedded, things get more complicated. Divergence from a creed may not really mean that it is heterodox, but it could be orthodox in a different context. It is hard to be sure. So how does one test a contextualized theology for orthodoxy?

Stephen Bevans has done considerable work in this area. A lot of that work is summarized in his essay, “Fair or Foul?: Contextual Theology and Criteria for Orthodoxy.”3 The model shown in Figure 18 takes from Bevans and a couple of others.

TEST 1. A contextual theology must pass the “Test of God” In other words, it must be sound with regards to who God is, what He has revealed, and what He does. That leads to three sub-tests. They are:

  • The Word of God
  • The Character of God
  • The Works of God

The Word of God. Here, the “Word of God” is referring to The Holy Bible, not to Jesus Christ. For many, this seems the most obvious test. Is the contextual theology coherent to, or harmonious with what God has revealed in Holy Scripture. For many, this just seems obvious. Theology should come from Biblical Theology, and Biblical Theology should come from the Bible.

Figure 18. Tests of Contextual Theologies

The problem is that most all Christian-based theologies do come from Scripture to some extent. Sure, there are some theologies that definitely seem to be more eisegetic than exegetic, but even many theologies that are seen to have stood the tests (such as Calvinist and Arminian theologies) appear to spend as much time trying explain away problems they have with Scripture as they do trying to explain how they were deeloped from Scripture. However, many dubious theologies come from very selectively drawing from Scripture. Because of this the test is whether a theology is coherent with or harmonious with Scripture, rather than whether one can “proof-text” it.

The basis for this test is the understanding that the Bible has unity and canonicity. Unity means that the whole Bible is reliable and relevant for the church. Canonicity means that it has authority to guide and judge.

The next sub-test is the Character of God. While most of what we know about God comes from special revelation, it still can serve as a separate test. God is revealed in the Bible, seen in Jesus, and glorified in His creation. Through these means we find God to be transcendent, immanent, personal, holy, mighty, judging, loving, and worthy of worship. Some of these characteristics appear to exist in tension, and sometimes it is tempting for a theology to describe a god who doesn’t have some of these tensions. The removal of these tensions should lead to questions about the veracity of that theology. It may be easier to imagine a transcendent and impersonal god, or a judging and unloving god, or perhaps a personal and immanent god who is worthy of something less than worship. Theology that makes it easier to know God by creating a caricature of God, must be suspect.

This is a valid test since theology, ultimately, has God as the main object of study. While Christian theology covers such a wide swath of knowledge that it is easy to forget, it has God at its core. Jesus said that we are to worship God in spirit and in truth. While good people may disagree exactly what is meant by this, I believe there is agreement that worship of God is important for a Christian, and that worship must be tied on some level at least to worshiping God as God is. It may be true (as Gordon Kauffman correctly noted) that we worship the God we “create” in our minds, rather than the God who is.4 We may not be able to avoid this. We are limited beings and cannot fully know God. But when our theology steers us in the wrong direction, we must question that theology.

Another sub-test is in the Works of God. God is Creator. As such everything we see came from God and everything we cannot see, but still is, also came from God. The creation around us points to the Power and Creativity of God. I also think it points to God’s love of variety and magnanimity. Additionally God designed the Universe and declared it to be good. We live in a transitional state of disharmony between the initial and final ideal states of perfect harmony between God, Man, and Creation.

As such, Creation is a good thing. The material world is NOT evil or insignificant. The Creation did not have an evil demigod who created a world. God loves mankind but is far from disinterested in the works of His hands. A theology that undermines the Created world or its Creator is suspect. A theology that encourages humans to disrespect, dishonor, or abuse creation has embraced something that must be doubted.

Further, God created Man, male and female, in God’s image. While people have different theories (both credible and incredible) as to what this specifically means, it certainly points to humans as a unique creation with a unique role. It also makes clear that this special status is something that both men and women share. The Bible as shows all humans of all tribes and tongues share these qualities. As such, a theology that places humans too low or too high, or set up a hierarchy of value or based on sex or race are likely heterodox.

TEST 2. A good contextual theology should pass the “Test of the Church.” Theology is a human construct. It, hopefully, reveals God. How can the unity (or universality) of the church speak to localized groups as to their theologies? But if there is a spiritual union of all believers, that union does have relevance in terms of theology. A local theology should be open to both criticism FROM constructive dialogue with the broader church, and embrace the role of dialogue and challenge TO the broader church.

A dubious theology may have its adherents say, “We won’t accept criticism from you outsiders because you cannot understand our situation.” While there may be some level of truth to this, the unity of the church (one faith, one baptism, one spirit, one Lord) means that there is enough commonality for real challenge, in both directions, and dialogue.

This is where Church Tradition has its part as well. Some denominations are seen as giving too much authority to church tradition. They essentially make the decisions of the church in history canon. This can be quite problematic. But the other extreme can be problematic as well. Many groups overreact and ignore church history and church tradition. A middle ground seems wise. A new theology perhaps can diverge greatly from the past and still be good, but it should be open to criticism. The historical church is part of the universal church as much as any church on earth today— we are part of that same church. If a contextual theology diverges too far from the historical church, one must address the question of why that is.

A second sub-test is the Local Church. A contextual theology is, on some level, meant to be local so to fail the local church would be a deep problem. A good contextual theology should be understandable by the locals it is for. If it is too abstract or unrelated to the people, then how could it be thought of as being contextualized to the people? Ideally, it should develop from the people rather than from one single person, regardless of whether and insider or an outsider. And of course, a good contextual theology should be accepted, or at least be found acceptable, by a large number of locals within that context. Putting it bluntly, if a theology is unintelligible to, unacceptable by, or not drawn from the community, in what way can that theology be deemed to be contextual or local? In one way or another all of this stems from the Biblical concept of the Priesthood of the Believer. God’s revelation is to all, through all, and for all who are part of His church.

A third sub-test is the Fruit or Works of the Church. A church should exhibit the fruits of Good Deeds. It should express the fruit of the spirit. If a local theology does not lead to such positive fruit, or worse, justifies works or attitudes that are contrary to such spiritual fruit, there must be serious questions posed.

TEST #3: A good contextual theology should pass “The Test of Culture.” Theology is a bridge that connects the revelation of an unchanging God with mankind that is changing continually in terms of culture. Theology cannot ignore culture. Two sub-tests that are relevant here are:

  • Resonance with Culture
  • Tension with Culture

The Sub-test of Resonance with Culture suggests that a good contextual theology puts into words, symbols, and images what truly speak to the often unspoken concerns, hopes, and fears of people in the culture. This quality of Resonance (and the related idea of Relevance) is covered in Chapter 2. Good contextual theology “scratches where it itches.” A theology that is absolutely true (if such a thing is possible) but expresses God’s revelation in a manner that keeps the people in the dark, must be seen as a bad theology.

The final Sub-test is Tension with Culture. I would like to spend a bit more time with this one. It is not because this sub-test is more important, but because it can be misunderstood. Contextualization of Theology is sometimes seen making theology too comfortable with a context, or too uncomfortable.

Evaluating Contextual Theologies. Part 1

This is a chapter of a book I am writing on Contextual Theology. Still a work in progress. I will finish one day.

Chapter 13

Evaluation of Contextualized Theologies

Stephen Bevans states that all theology is contextual.1 However, as one of my dialogue partners noted, it could be taken to mean that there is nothing that is distinctly Christian in Christian theology. In other words, in an effort to be “contextual” can theology lose something distinctly Christian.

The short answer is YES— that indeed can happen, becoming syncretistic. However, a failure to contextualize theology also can fall into syncretism… an unhealthy (and unexamined) mixing of Christian teachings with the culture in which it already exists.

But how do we evaluate theology… especially theology as examined through the lens of culture. Cultural anthropology questions our ability to judge another culture, and many anthropologists would take it even further and fully relativize all cultural beliefs. Post-modernist thought also doubts our ability to judge, and to know absolute truth. This is not to say that post-modernism necessarily rejects absolute truth. While some may believe that, many more accept the existence of ultimate truth, but doubt its know-ability. As Merold Westphal describes post-modernism, particularly deconstruction, as stemming from the belief that one cannot “peek over God’s shoulder.”2 If one accepts this, where truth is not identifiable with any certainty and religions cannot be be judged, does this mean that we can say nothing about attempts to contextualize the Christian faith. Are all attempts equally valid (or equally invalid)?

We see this controversy recently in terms of honor-shame theology versus guilt-innocence theology. Some from the guilt-innocence side of things (read penal substitutionary atonement if one prefers) feel that the other side is creating its own theology to fit honor-shame cultures, rather than grounding it on Scripture. Is that correct? It is certainly a risk. However, as one looks at Scripture, we find that the risk is real on both sides of the issue.

The Bible uses many metaphors to explain the relationship of God to mankind, and His activity to restore us to Him. Some metaphors resonate with guilt-innocence folks, while others resonate with with honor-shame cultures. Penal substitutionary atonement as a theological construct draws from the metaphor of justification and the courtroom. To a lesser extent it draws from metaphor behind propitiation— the image of God as having wrath that must be appeased through sacrifice. However, there are metaphors that resonate more with honor-shame cultures. One of these is adoption, while another is the church as “the Bride of Christ.” One could even argue that redemption is closer to patronage in honor-shame cultures. Ultimately, these metaphors are equally valid and Biblical. All of them are supra-cultural in the sense that they are canonical. However, they are also cultural in the sense that they may connect in especially important ways to certain cultures (and less so with other cultures).

So when those from the penal substituionary atonement crowd (guilt-innocence) express concern about the honor shame folk changing theology to meet a cultural need, they are correct. However, their concern cuts both ways. They have themselves chosen certain metaphors and verses to suppport their theology while ignoring many others. There is nothing inherently wrong with this— unless, of course, one acts like it is the single universal theological understanding directly from God to us. (I remember listening to more than one sermon where the speaker struggles to turn the Parable of the Prodigal Son into Guilt-Innocence story of salvation. Instead of trying to explain how the atonment is in that parable, it is better to simply accept that salvation is modeled a different way in the story.)

Theology, at its essence, bridges the gap between God’s revelation and Man’s condition. God’s revelation is unchanging, while Man’s condition is both varied and changing. As such, theology should be constantly changing, connected to the changing state of mankind, and connected to the unchanging revelation of God.

I tend to like “strange attractors” from Chaos Theory. In some non-linear systems the condition at any point of time is changing and non-repetitive, but still appears to be controlled by some points that provide limits to the motion, called “strange attractors.” Theology seems to fit this as well since theology is constantly changing and non-repetitive, but I would suggest that it has (at least) two strange attractors.

  • The revealing of God. Theology must reveal God, since it is based on God who seeks to reveal Himself to mankind.
  • The relevance to Man. Theology is meant to benefit mankind.

Theology that fails to reveal God, and/or fails to be relevant to mankind, is flawed.

So what does this have to do with the church. The church is where theology is lived out. It is lived out most obviously in terms of practical theology, but ultimately it is bound to all aspects of its theology. As much as some church bodies express the belief that “theology is not important,” it truly is. Ignoring it doesn’t make it cease to exist or cease to be relevant… it just is moved into the church’s “blind spot”— affecting the church without the church aware of it.

So let’s move this forward. Suppose a local church has a local theology. To what extent is it bound to be responsible to churches of other cultures? I would say— Quite a Bit. First of all, our theologies are linked by common revelation from God. To replace that is to drift from being Christian. However, additionally, the local church may be tied to its local culture, but it is also tied to the universal church— that mystical bond of all churches often called “the body of Christ.” This catholicity should never replace its locality, nor should its locality replace its catholicity.

Consider a bit of practical theology in terms of sacrament/ordinance. What should the elements of the Eucharist be? Tradition has it to be unleavened bread, and wine. Some groups have change things by using leavened bread or using grape juice (“new wine” if you prefer). Here in the Cordillera Mountains of the Philippines, I have often thought that many of the groups here would do well to use kamote (yams) and coffee instead. The logic of this is that bread and wine were the staples of the Jews in Palestine, while kamote and coffee are the equivalent in the Cordilleras. As such, it is a parallel localization— the latter better pointing to Christ as one who sustains us. The bread and wine point not only to Christ as sacrifice, but to the Passover and God’s sustaining of His people. Kamote and Coffee may express this better for people around where I live.

But there is another take. The Eucharist is among the oldest traditions of the church. It has been practiced for nearly 2000 years and in all parts of the world. This 4-Dimensional aspect of the church is not irrelevant. When a local church holds Eucharist (Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion), we are also connecting ourselves to the practice of local churches across time and space. Perhaps bread and wine is more appropriate because it reminds us of our mystical union with the Body of Christ. It also might link us better to the Old Testament saints who used bread and wine to thank God for His sustaining protection.

God, Man, or Satan

This image above is considering where other religions come from. (from Sir Norman Anderson). Some people believe they come from God. If that is true then other religions are a Preparation for the Gospel. Other people believe they come from Satan. If that is true, then other religions are a trap, snare, and distraction. Others believe that other religions are Man’s attempt to understand the great mysteries of life, and are seeking meaning and hope in a confusing world.

Each have implications on other things. If other religions are from God, then that suggests continuity of God’s work (God is working everywhere, not simply through the church). If other religions are from Satan, then it may be more correct to think that God’s work is discontinuous… God ONLY ministers to the world through the church. If other religions are from Man, it is not so certain as to which (as I marked) but it is probable that God’s ministry is discontinuous. I am using continuity and discontinuity the way Andrew Walls does.

If other religions are from God, then our goal is for the gospel to fulfill/complete other religions. If other religions are from Satan, then other religions need to be destroyed and replaced. If other religions are man-made… it is not so clear what should be done, but the key point is that things have to change… transformation is needed.

If other religions are from God, then the contextualization form that is best (from Paul Hiebert’s model) is probably uncritical contextualization— quick to embrace what is good, focusing on common ground and ignoring problematic details. If other religions are from Satan, then non-contextualization makes more sense. Cultural imperialism, throwing out the bad and replacing it with what the missionary believes is good from outside, hopefully will work. If other religions are from Man, then Critical Contextualization makes the most sense. We have to understand others and their beliefs openly and sympathetically, but recognizing the need for God’s message to challenge and change in some areas.

If other religions come from God, then dialogue makes the most sense. We need to talk together and learn from each other. If other religions come from Satan, then didactic speech (teaching/preaching) makes the most sense. If other religions come from Man, perhaps dialectic makes the most sense— recognizing the competing values and beliefs to challenge and be challenged by the other. (Using terms as David Hesselgrave does here… I think.)

But, what if ALL THREE IS TRUE? God is at work everywhere drawing all to Himself, even before the church has arrived (like with Cornelius and Peter in Acts). Satan is the accuser and deceiver roaming over the whole earth, and is perfectly happy to work both inside and outside of religion to do this. And Man is always seeking to know what is true and what is good and what is right, and will develop religion as a vehicle to answer to answer these questions. If all three are true, then our response cannot be as simple as the diagram would have for any individual.

I put purple squares around those responses that I think make sense if other religions come from all three sources. Do you agree?