Purified, Strenthened, Permeated, Concretized and Actualized Cultural Values

My daughters attended a Catholic University here in the Philippines, and Religious education was part of the curriculum. My daughters found some of the classes interesting and valuable… others drab and dull. It seems like the interest and investment of the instructors in their topic tended to rub off on the students. Anyway, they gave me their text books and I like a lot of the materials.

Here is an extended quote on what I would describe as Contextualization of the Christian Faith. The book describes it as “Renewed Catechesis.” Catechesis means Religious education, and renewed suggests making the teachings of the church relevant and resonant in new cultural settings.

“‘Catechesis today must be Christ-centered… Everything— the Blessed Virgin, the saints, the sacraments, word of life, devotions, etc. — must be taught in relation to Christ, and with the purpose of leading the catechized into intimacy with Christ’ (PCP-II 157). For Catechesis to be Christ-centered, it ‘must be rooted in the Word. Nothing and no one speaks better of the Incarnate Word than the scriptural Word of God… ‘Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” (PCP-II 159).

Renewed Catechesis must also be authentically Filipino and systematic. It becomes authentically Filipino if it is inculturated. Inculturation implies, first of all, communicating the Christian message using the language of the people (PCP-II 160). According to the NCDP, ‘the Christian message must be expressed through images, symbols, rites that are indigenous to Philippine culture.’ (NCDP 381).

PCP-II further describes inculturation as ‘the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity and the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures’ (PCP-II 202). A similar idea is expressed by the NCDP when it says that ‘authentic Filipino cultural values, attitudes and practices must themselves be viewed in the light of Christ andin terms of their basic Christian dimensions…’ (NCDP 381). Further, inculturation can happen because ‘Filipino values can be purified, permeated, and strengthened by Gospel values. Gospel values in turn are concretized and actualized in Filipino values and patterns of action’ (NCDP 383).

Growing as a Missionary Church, by Romano M. Bulatao, Reynaldo O. Dumpayan, and Lawrence D. Dumayas (Philippines, CPSP Publishing House, 2013), pages 5 and 6)

Clarifying a bit, PCP-II refers the “Second Plenary Council of the Philippines,” while NCDP refers to the “National Catechetical Directory of the Philippines.”

This is expressed somewhat different than I might. I would not necessarily focus on the Mother of Jesus, the Saints, and the Sacraments. But it can be argued that this quote doesn’t either. It says that everything points to the centeredness of Christ, and training must be centered on the Word of God (Christ) and the Holy Scriptures that reveal Christ. There is a lot of common ground there.

I rather like the way the quote describes inculturation of the Gospel message. Some people always focus on the risk of “tainting” the message of God with local values. Here however, inculturation describes a two-way street where Christian teachings and Cultural Values are aided in the process.

  • The Gospel message can purify Cultural values— it identifies the best in local beliefs, not just pointing out what is wrong.
  • The Gospel message can strengthen Cultural values— demonstrating that the good is not merely opinion of local culture, but also of God. (Much of Filipino traditional values are highly commendable, and need to strengthened, not undermined by the Christian Church.)
  • The Gospel message can permeate Cultural values— it does not have to be like oil and water or a veneer of one covering the other. A person being sanctified in Christ does not become a completely different person, but instead becomes what he or she was meant to be. In like manner, renewal of culture in Christ changes culture to be what it is meant to be— distinct, unique, and purified.
  • Filipino values concretize and actualize the Gospel message. The Gospel message will enter a culture feeling abstract and foreign. It will not be understandable on a visceral, emotional, spiritual level until it is connected with the way of life and manner of thought of people in the culture.

By the way, This book quotes from the PCP-II (“Second Plenary Council of the Philippines”) where it in turn quotes, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is the ignorance of Christ.” Until I looked it up, I did not know that this is a quote of St. Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate translation of the Bible.

While, as a non-Catholic, there are many aspects of the book that I cannot wholeheartedly accept. Nevertheless, I am glad my daughters received this religious training. They went to an Evangelical high school, and I must admit that at least some of religious education at the school was overly simplistic and trite. As sadly, much of it was most definitely NOT a Renewed Catechesis.

Contextual Biblical Theology Quote

I have been reading Grenz and Olson’s book, “Who Needs Theology?” and found that they have a nice section of contextual theology. The following is a quote addressing the question of whether contextualization of theology should start from the Bible, as opposed to starting from culture. (I am reading the Kindle version, so I don’t have the exact page):

Going to the Bible first is a helpful proposal, yet it poses one grave danger. In our quest to read and be faithful in Scripture, we may overlook our culture. We may not give sufficient attention to the questions people today are asking. As a result, our doctring— as biblical as it may appear to be— may in the end be irrelevant to the world in which God calls us to live as disciples. In short, our attempt to construct a biblical theology may short circuit our attempt to construct a biblical theology.

Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), chapter 7

Grenz and Olson later in the chapter support a “Trialogue” between Bible, Setting, and Church History. Quoting from later in the chapter, “How do we construct contextual theology? Our answer is: By bringing our understanding of Scripture, our cognizance of our heritage and our reading of our cultural context into creative trialogue.”

It is interesting, to me at least, that Stephen Bevans in his six modesl of contextualization, seemed to have a trialogue of Scripture, Culture, and Reflection. It is interesting to me because Bevans is a Catholic theologian and so would, presumably, take church heritage more seriously than Grenz and Olson. However, Bevans in speaking to a group of Catholic theologians (youtube video I saw) seemed to suggest that the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic church is somewhat of a obstacle to overome in contextualization. However, the Intertradionality of the Synthetic Contextualizaiton model may suggest the drawing on church history/heritage.

Maintaining Otherness. Why Do People Fail to Adapt to a New Culture?

I want to focus on one reason for failing to adapt to a new culture, but before I do, I suppose I should list some other reasons first.

#1. Unintentional Ethnocentrism. This is the belief that “Our Way is the Only Way.” This may be unintentional because the person comes from a monocultural setting, perhaps, where there is a homogeneity of beliefs and behaviors. I think this is probably a less common option today. The internet and increased travel makes experience with other cultures much more common. Additionally, when one moves to another culture, unless one is almost completely unreflective, eventually one will make decisions intentionally.

#2. Intentional Ethnocentrism. This is the belief that “Our Way is the Best Way.” In this, the person has thought about adapting but chooses not to because she or he thinks their home culture is better.

#3. Local Collaboration. I am making up this term, but I have seen this a lot. When a foreigner enters a local culture, the locals will often support maintaining the otherness of the foreigner. This is done especially in cultures where hospitality is strong. So locals will make a point of talking, or trying to talk, in the language of the foreigner, so that the person doesn’t feel uncomfortable and have to learn the local language. Other things may include making sure that the foreigner has spoon and fork,or is given a place to stay that conforms to the foreigner’s home setting, These are done to be helpful, but it slows down adaptation.

#4. Expatriate Bonding. Often when a foreigner enters a new culture. Often other foreigners will take the new people under their wing. This is meant to be nice, but it like the previous one. Thomas and Sue Brewster spoke of this sort of bonding for missionaries. Missionaries adapt faster if they don’t bond to missionaries in the field.

I am sure I am missing a lot of others, but I want to spend more time on one.

#5. Maintaining the Advantages of Otherness. With this one, the person is intentional in maintaining otherness, but not necessarily due to ethnocentrism. Rather, there are advantages seen in maintaining a form of foreignness. Some jobs are helped in this. If one owns an ethnic restaurant, is a practioner of ayurvedic medicine, or yoga, or martial arts, there may be economic advantages if one’s persona is is more foreign than local.

A rather unpleasant example is in the area of maintaining power imbalance. Lesslie Newbigin gisves a wonderful example of this in his book “The Finality of Christ” in a letter from a British Colonial governor in India dated 1798.

To preserve the ascendancy which our national character has acquired over the minds of the natives of India must ever be of importance to the maintenance of the political power we possess in the East; and we are well persuaded that this end is not to be served either by a disregard of the external observances of religion or by any assimilations to Eastern manners and opinions, but rather by retaining all the distinctions of our national principles, character, and usages.

Lesslie Newbigin “The Finality of Christ” (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1969), 13. The quote originally from a letter in 1792, is quoted by F. Penney “The Church in Madras, Vol. 1” (London, 1904), 419.

Essentially, the writer appears to be saying that the British can keep the natives under their control if they see the British as different, mysterious, and superior. If the British start adapting to the Indian culture, the locals might start seeing the British as “Just like us.” This letter is not a unique attitude. It was very much the advice of the day. It still can happen today when we don’t pay attention.

Religious leaders often support a certain otherness as well— dressing different, acting different, and such. After all, the pope throughout history has avoided being seen eating in publich NOT because he doesn’t need to eat. Rather, there is the goal to think of the pope as “not really like us” and sharing a meal undermines this.

Jesus actually was quite annoyed at the religious leaders in first century Judea, and this comes largely for their desire to maintain a false front before other people with the hope of that otherness will be interpreted as holiness.

Missionaries can fall into this as well. Ultimately, the example of Jesus was quite different. He was God with us in such a literal way that He was faollowed event though behaving in many ways as “One of Us.”

Thoughts on Localization of Theology

I have been working on a couple of articles. One of them I decided to remove a large section. I will include it here. Most of it comes from parts of my books on on Interreligious Dialoge and Theology of Mission (using some of the work of David Hesselgrave, Stephen Bevans, and Paul Hiebert).

Theology that is not well-grounded in God’s revelation is untrue and irrelevant. Theology that is well-grounded in God’s revelation but not contextualized to the people will be misunderstood. Misunderstood is essentially the same as untrue, and thus also irrelevant. Bevans has also gone further and argued that a couple of tests of a good (orthodox) and healthy local theology are (a) it develops from the people in their local context, and (b) it is open to both challenge other theologies from other contexts in the universal church and accept critique from the same.

Paul Hiebert described three types of contextualization— non-contextualization, uncritical contextualization, and critical contextualization. Critical contextualization is considered the ideal type of contextualization, with the other two types essentially being to forms of inappropriate contextualizing. For Hiebert, critical contextualization occurs when there is an integration of a careful reading and understanding of the Bible with a sympathetic This is where Bible doctrines are “translated” into a new cultural setting through a careful study of Scripture and a sympathetic understanding of the recipient culture. While this appears to establish two stakeholders in the activity— the Bible and the recipient culture— there are, in fact, three cultures interacting. These are the recipient culture, the missionary culture, and the Biblical culture(s). A proper interaction of interpreting Scripture in light of these three cultures should, hopefully, lead to a good contextualized theology.

The other forms of contextualization occur when the process is unbalanced. Uncritical Contextualization places too much emphasis on the recipient culture. Too much of the recipient culture is essentially “blessed” that key elements of God’s message are downplayed or eliminated. In such a setting, the resultant faith may take on more of a mythic rather than parabolic role in that culture. That is, the resultant faith justifies the culture more than it challenges it. This is syncretism— an unhealthy mix of God’s message and culture.

The other form of unbalanced contextualization, according to Hiebert is non-contextualization. This is where the local culture is given too little value. Perhaps the thought is that since the culture is not considered Christian, all elements in which it differs from the missionary culture, thought to be a Christian culture, is bad. Hiebert notes that this often leads to the Christian faith maintaining a “foreigness” to it, and a faith that is often shallow. Below a thin layer of Christian behavior and answers to questions, is the unchallenged values and worldview of the local culture. Both Charles Kraft and Jackson Wu would note that this also is a form of syncretism. It is the unhealthy mixing of God’s revelation and the missionary’s culture. Often people express concern about contextualization saying that it leads, inevitably, to syncretism. In fact, the opposite is probably more true. If the local culture is ignored and the missionary culture version of the Christian faith is indoctrinated into the people, syncretism on some level has already occurred.

Earlier I noted the Three Culture Model speaks of interaction between recipient culture, missionary culture, and Biblical culture. One could argue that there is a fourth type of contextualization where there is an overemphasis on, or theological blessing of, the culture(s) in the Bible. This is true, and actually quite common, but functionally, it is essentially the same as non-contextualization. If one goes to a new culture and tells them, “Christians are supposed to wear white shirts and ties if they are male, and dresses if they are female” (because that is what we wear back home), there is no functional difference from telling them, “Christians are supposed to wear tunics and cloaks” (because that is what both men and women wore in the Bible).

Identifying the importance of balance in contextualization in no way makes clear how this is done. But each form of contextualization suggests a different strategy. These different strategies are described by David Hesselgrave. He applied these terms to a somewhat different problem, but they work here. Non-contextualization follows the Didactic Method. Didactic here implies one-way communication. The missionary enters a culture and takes on the role of teacher, and the people in the recipient culture embrace the role of student or learner. Good discipleship happens when people change a lot and missionary changes little. Uncritical Contextualization follows the Dialogic Method. I don’t actually care for Hesselgrave’s term here. He is using the term rather negatively, while I will be using the term Dialogue in a more neutral way later in this paper. However, I do understand the reason for his choice here. In the Dialogic method, little importance is placed on change. Dialogue is often seen as focused on two-way communication with the desired outcome to be mutual understanding rather than change of heart or behavior. Great importance is on interaction— Presence and Participation over Proclamation. <In the 1960s a divide formed in Protestant missions where conservatives focused on Proclamation of the Gospel with the goal of leading to radical conversion to Christ. On the other side, many liberals focused on missional Presence where Proselytization was seen as the “antithesis” of missions. The extreme of the conservative view would line up with non-contextualization, where the job of the missionary is to talk, and the job of the people is simply to listen and change. The extreme of the liberal view would line up with uncritical contextualization. The result of presence is generally to bless the best in the culture rather than inviting a call to change of allegiance.

Between these extremes would be a the Dialectic method. In this view there is dialogue (two-way communication) but the goal is a process where both sides challenge each other other with the goal of finding truth. Thus it is more focused on truth than what is described as Dialogic method. It is more focused on two-way conversation than the Didactic method. It also assumes the possibility that both sides may need to learn something. The Dialectic method also differs from debate or apologetics. The latter is interested in winning rather than finding truth.

Recognizing that syncretism is an anticipated risk for either extreme (excessive and inadequate contextualization of the faith), this suggests that the spectrum of contextualization may be viewed as a circle where critical (or balanced) contextualization is on one side (such as at “3 o’clock”) and movement away from that side, occurs either clockwise or counterclockwise towards its opposite (“9 o’clock”). Referring to Figure 1, Clockwise movement could be used to indicate movement towards more non-contextualization. This direction would involve giving more respect to the missionary culture in terms of contextualization, and less to the recipient culture. Counter-clockwise movement could be used to indicate movement towards uncritical contextualization. This direction wou involve giving more respect to the recipient culture in terms of contextualization, and less to the missionary culture. The two movements are shown as joining together at 9 o’clock because both lead to the opposite of critical contextualization— syncretism.

Figure 1

Looking at Communication

Instead of looking at the movement of the Gospel message into a culture in terms of contextualization, one can look at it as an act of communication. In most cases the presentation of the gospel to a new culture comes through a process of cross-cultural dialogue. There are different models of dialogue, but I prefer one that breaks things down into three general models. Different authors use different terms, but I will use “Apologetic,” “Clarification” and “Common Ground” models. The Apologetic model focuses on the differences. The missionary goal is to win the argument. The goal is to show the superiority of one’s beliefs, and the inferiority of the others. The ideal result of such an encounter is a full surrender to the perspective of the missionary. The other extreme in terms of dialogue is the “Common Ground” model. In this model, the missionary seeks to promote dialogue by emphasizing similarities and minimizing differences. In this situation, the missionary is not so focused on changing the others’ beliefs, but that “we all are pretty much the same.” Between these extremes is Clarification. Clarification seeks a certain amount of balance. Both the similarities and differences are valued.

Figure 2

Figure 2 shows a way of showing this. Figure 1 shows the movement converges on the left side since both directions end up with syncretism. Figure 2 can also be shown this way. As one moves from the right side (“3 o’clock”) towards the left-side one is moving towards less focus on truth. This is obvious from the standpoint emphasizing similarities in Common Ground Models. Common Ground Models can be described as relativistic. The goal is to make connection, breaking down barriers, ignoring issues such as what one believes. Emphasizing differences moving toward Apologetic models also lessens the importance of truth. In apologetics, the primary interest is on winning, not determining what is true. On reflection, this just makes sense since focusing on agreement versus disagreement with beliefs would mean less focus on the truth of beliefs.

Comparing The Two Figures

While there are clear similarities, it is worthwhile to address the marked differences. The biggest difference is that the two are dealing with two different spectra. The first is about the spectrum of strategies for contextualization. The second is about the spectrum of strategies for interreligious dialogue. And yet, the two are very much related. Both involve the interactions between people of different beliefs from two different cultures. The spectrum regarding contextualization is more implicitly missiological, but both involve conversations in a similar setting.

A more important difference is a comparison of what is going on at the left side (“9 o’clock”). In Figure 1, the left side shows a greater tendency to syncretism. In Figure 2, even though not explicitly marked, the left side expresses a lesser interest in truth. This in itself is not problem since each figure could emphasize a different thing. However, if the two figures are expresses a similar experience, presumably the two tendencies should be compatible. At first brush, they do not. Syncretism is not necessarily linked to a lesser emphasis on truth. That being said, syncretism is a result, not a motive. So if one looks at Figure1, the argument could be made that an unbalanced contextualization, either uncritical contextualization or non-contextualization, involves a lesser interest in truth. Critical Contextualization involves determining how Biblical truth can be established faithfully in a new context. Non-Contextualization and Uncritical Contextualization rejects critical faculties in determining truth. This does not mean that syncretism is a rejection of truth, but rather that setting something else as a priority over truth establishes a a setting where syncretism can develop.

The similarities of the figures outweigh the differences. Most importantly, the two establish three categories that line up fairly well. Clarification Models for Interreligious Dialogue (IRD) would involve a search of the truth through identifying similarities and differences with regards to two cultures (and potentially three cultures if including Bible culture). Such a search would ideally be dialectical rather than dialogic (in this case focusing those forms of dialogue that focus on common ground rather than on truth) or didactic (being primarily unidirectional). Critical Contextualizaiton should be harmonious with the Clarification Models of IRD. In a similar way, Apologetic Models for IRD line up with didactic methods relating to non-contextualization. Although Apologetic Models would utilize two-way communication, the similarity lies in the premise that the recipient culture has little to offer the sending (or missionary) culture. Common Ground Models for IRD line fairly well with dialogic methods related to uncritical contextualization. In these, the focus is on covering over differences and minimizing change in the recipient culture.

Flavors of Localized Theology. Part 1

The following is s from a chapter I am writing on Localizing Theology. I decided to talk about “Flavors” of Localized Theology versus “Theories” or “Models” of Localized Theology (I will use “LW” forward). The reason is that if one speaks of Models of something, there is the temptation of people to assume that one Model is correct and the others are wrong. This is actually a bit silly. A model, pretty much by definition IS NOT REALITY. Models attempt to provide insight about reality, but will clearly fail on some level.

We see this, for example, with Atonement Theory. There are several theories of the Atonement of Christ. If one studies this, almost invariably, a student (or instructor) will address “Which one is Biblical?” Generally speaking, most, if not all, are Biblical. They generally have a sound theological basis. And ALL OF THEM fail to be complete explanations. The same could be said of Models of Theological Contextualization. Some like to ask which is the “most Biblical” or which one is Evangelical. However, all 6 of (Bevan’s) models can be found to be useful tools for an Evangelical theologian, pastor, or missionary. And probably none of them should be given over to completely..

Flavor suggests that it is part of an overall recipe. Consider Filipino cuisine. It seems to me that there are 6 major flavors. Five of them are the flavors associated with taste, and one is the flavor associated with smell. Filipino cuisine leans in hard on SALTY and UMAMI (salty and savory). However, one could argue that SOUR, SWEET, and BITTER are just as important. I suggest that there is one other flavor that is critical to Filipino cuisine, and that is FISHY. Filipino cuisine is not big on herbs and spices… although SPICY is appreciated by some— and PUNGENT and FRUITY have their moments as well. All of these come together blending flavors to make a dish good.

In like manner, there are many different flavors that come together for Localized Theology. It is not about which is correct, They all are important and should be present in one way or another in contextualization/localization of theology.

In the next few posts, I will talk about a few of these. I will focus on the Filipino context generally.

#1. Flavor of Region. Filipino culture is in many ways unique from the rest of Asia, in many ways it should have the flavor of the surrounding Asian theologies.

#2. Flavor of Cultural Aspirations. What are the cultural hopes (and conversely, cultural fears).

#3. Flavor of Cultural Patterns. How does cultural patterns (honor, justice, power, reciprocity, harmony) provide a potential framework for theology?

#4. Flavor of Cultural Values. Each culture idealizes or mythologizes certain qualities. How does the theology support or combat these?

#5. Flavor of Cultural Artifacts. What surface level cultural behaviors or materials can be utilizes to make theology more local (either making it more relevant or more resonant)?

More to come in follow-on posts.

Easter. It’s Okay… Really.

I wrote a post a few years ago called, “Christmas. It’s Okay… Really.” You can read it by CLICKING HERE.

I am writing this during Holy Week (Maundy Thursday to be exact). Easter is just three days away. The points of my previous post also applies to this holiday. The former post had several points:

  • It is Okay to Christianize a “Pagan” Holiday (Issue of Contextualization). I deal with this in more detail with regards to Christmas. In actuality, Christmas does not actually appear to have sprung up from a pagan holiday, but has been affected by pagan festivities over the centuries. Good contextualization comes from making a connection of the divine with the cultural. In some ways Easter is even less ‘pagan’ than Christmas. Unlike Christmas where the birthday of Jesus is highly speculative, we know fairly precisely when Jesus was crucified and when He rose (especially if utilizing a lunar calendar). Additionally, Easter is connected to the Jewish holiday of Passover. On the other hand, some practices, such as Easter eggs and Easter bunnies have connection to pre-Christian practices (apparently). And regardless of pagan roots, the eggs and bunnies are tied to the cycle of life as both relate to productivity and fertility— issues of special importance in Springtime, especially in Norther temperate climates. A few days ago, I was sent an article that connected Easter to all sorts of pagan practices. Some sure sounded quite… fanciful. some were based on more solid data. However, I am not focusing on the details here because I don’t have problems with “redeeming a holiday.” No day of the year is off-limits to Christian celebration.
  • It is Okay to Celebrate a “Civil” Holiday (Issue of Separation). Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Pentecost Sunday, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday and such are Christian religious holidays. The same can be said of Christmas, Easter, and Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras). The difference of these last three is that each of these share their day with a civil holiday of the same name, at least in some parts of the world. Christmas has a civil Christmas that is rather disconnected from its religious anchor. The same can be said of Easter and Mardi Gras. Some are very bothered by this, but there is something quite wonderful in that Christians and non-Christian can join together and celebrate the same day together. Of course, both Mardi Gras and Christmas have civil elements of excess that is quite problematic. It is rather nice that, generally speaking, civil Easter does not have this as much. Yes, candy companies have tried to make Easter a springtime equivalent to Halloween to market various products, but the excess has never been as ridiculous as with the other two. As such, I think it is quite nice that Christian and non-Christian alike can join together on Easter.
  • It is Okay to Celebrate Easter when we do (Issue of Historicity). I know the Eastern and Western churches have separated on when to celebrate Easter. Some wanted to separate Easter from Passover (a rather stupid idea I think). That being said, the key point is that it is meant to be a memorial to the event of Christ’s resurrection. Eusebius of Caesarea spoke in the early part of the 4th century on this matter of Easter. He notes that at that time, there were two “ancient traditions.” (Those today that see Easter as rejected by the early church are certainly guilty of over-simplifying the issue.) In the time of Eusebius, one group saw celebration of Jesus’s resurrection once a week on the Lord’s Day as sufficient. The other believed it good to have a once a year festival (presumably in addition to the Lord’s Day, not a replacement for it. You can read on this HERE. One group does not appear to be better than the other.
  • It is Okay to Celebrate (Issue of Asceticism). I don’t have anything to add from the one on Christmas. However, we should learn to get comfortable with addressing the issue of celebration. I have written on that somewhat: A Theology of Celebration. It is in two parts— PART ONE, and PART TWO.
  • It is Okay not to Listen to me (Issue of Conformity). I recently left an online discussion where one of the participants took great offense that many of the others did not agree with him. He appeared to believe that the rest of us were disagreeing with the Bible. In truth, what we were disagreeing with was his interpretation of the Bible and with the theological construct that he developed, in part, from the Bible. I won’t do that. You can take what I say to heart or not.

I will add one more:

  • It is Okay to Change the Name (Issue of Labeling). Some are concerned by the name Easter because of its non-Christian roots. They prefer the term “Resurrection Sunday.” That is perfectly fine. It certainly reminds us, as Christians, “the reason for the season.” However, I would recommend NOT trying to push this on everyone. As noted before, Easter has the benefit of being a celebration (in many countries) that bridges faiths. As a Christian with Christians, I celebrate Resurrection Sunday, but as a Christian with a more diverse crowd, I can joyously celebrate Easter— that strange holiday that brings together the religious and the mundane.

Using Non-Christian Works to Lead People to Christ?

A friend of mine is writing a paper on the use of the Qur’an as part of the evangelization process of Muslims. In his research he got some pushback. Some feel that it is inappropriate for a Christian to use a non-canonical work (obviously using the term ‘canonical’ from the Christian rather than Muslim perspective).

I don’t real see the problem, and I will get back to that later. However, there are some good reasons not to use the Qur’an that should be acknowledged.

  1. Some may get offended by a non-Muslim utilizing a Muslim holy book. Some Christians may get offended by a non-Christian utilizing a Christian holy book. There is not much to say about that, but it should be acknowledged that this can happen.
  2. More commonly, some Muslims may get offended if their holy book is misused or poorly interpreted by a non-Muslim. I must admit that I get the concern. Some Muslims like to promote their faith based on the argument that Jesus predicted the coming of their founding prophet. They see Jesus sending the “Comforter” as not being the Holy Spirit, but their prophet. I do get annoyed by that since the broader context of the book of John makes it pretty clear that their interpretation does not “hold water.” Perhaps I shouldn’t take it personally, but I don’t like it when people cherry pick Scripture passages from the Holy Bible to support a dubious claim (especially when sound interpretation practices undermine the argument). Actually, there is a method for presenting the Gospel to Muslims that utilizes the Qur’an in a way I don’t wholly approve of. Some of it is okay, but a couple of the canned responses from the evangelist I feel misuses the Qur’an. While as a Christian I am not all that worried about misusing a non-Christian text, I feel that many Muslims WOULD take offense. The answer, in my mind, is not to avoid using the Qur’an, but to do so fairly and competently. That often would mean interpreting in line with the best Muslim scholarship of their book. However, since the information on Jesus in the Qur’an is not always particularly consistent, at least be fair and considerate in the inconsistency.
  3. While the Qur’an points strongly to a fairly high view of Jesus, the message is muddled. Taking the passages as a whole, Jesus seems to be more than human, but also less than divine. Additionally, Jesus might be said to be a savior in a general sense, but certainly not in an ultimate sense. The Qur’an agrees on a number of things from the canonical Gospels (while disagreeing on some key things), and also draws from some more fanciful works like the Infancy Gospel of Jesus. In the end, the Quranic view of Jesus is a mixed and inconsistent bag. Using the Qur’an to support a high view of Jesus may be valuable, but understand that the Quranic view is decidedly ‘low’ in contrast to Biblical sections like John 1, Colossians 1, Hebrews 1, and Philippians 2 (for example). It may make sense to use the Qur’an at the start, but it should not be the end of training.

However, if one embraces a Center-Set understanding of Christianity, the use of the Qur’an makes sense. The idea of sets comes from Paul Hiebert. A bounded set understanding of Christianity focuses on the boundary of what it means to be Christian. Christians may vary on what the boundary is, but most think the boundary is important. For some it is based on denomination… a particularly poor boundary. Others may be based on a creed. I think that has a better grounding. For Evangelicals, we tend to see the boundary as “Redeemed” (inside) versus “Unredeemed” (outside). One problem with this is that we are not given access to this knowledge— only God knows who is redeemed. Regardless, those who embrace a bounded set understanding of Christianity would tend to avoid using the Qur’an or the Bhagavad Gita or any other text that is clearly “outside the boundary.” On the other hand, a centered-set understanding of Christianity focuses on the center, not the boundary. We may not always know where the boundary is, but we know what the center is— Jesus Christ. Growing in our faith means moving closer to Christ. With this understanding, an “outsider text” that helps initially to move people towards Christ is a good thing.

So, I believe there is value in knowing outsider works that outsiders value.

Let me use a very different example. (I have may have written on this example before on this website.)——- Many years ago, a great aunt of mine passed away. I and many of my relatives went to the funeral. My great aunt was a member of a church and her pastor led the funeral service. He was one who understood his role, in part at least, to share present the gospel during the service. Personally, I am not sure that was his job, but perhaps I am wrong. However, he started sharing “scientific proofs” of God. One of my relatives was an atheist and he tended to see Science and Christianity in stark contrast. It was pretty clear that the pastor was targeting his presentation to that person specifically.

Targeting one’s presentation to the beliefs and worldview of a specific person is commendable. But there was a problem with his presentation. He really did not know much science. Perhaps he listened to a sermon on science or read some gospel tract about science and faith. He, however, did not know much on science. Because of this, my assumption was that the message he gave would have the opposite effect of what was intended. Certainly my relative did not convert to Christianity after this presentation. If anything, it may have confirmed his own (non-theistic) faith seeing Christianity as unscientific, naive, and perhaps a bit foolish.

A pastor who studied scientific works (in the present, not just the science of decades or centuries ago) and understood the principles of scientific inquiry would, I believe, be better positioned to express Christ in a way that a naturalist or skeptic would be more likely to value. Of course, one eventually must move toward the Bible… but the start needs to be in what starts the movement toward Christ. Quoting

If that is true of someone from a naturalist, ‘scientific,’ or atheistic worldview would be better brought to Christ from someone knowledgeable of, and competent in utilizing scientific works than someone ignorant in the same, it seems pretty reasonable that the same would make sense for other worldviews. Again, we must end with Christ (as revealed by God) but we may need to start in a very different place— close to where they are at.

“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

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.