Loving Thy Neighbor in a Different Culture

Read two things recently regarding Christian ministry in Buddhist countries. One was an interview one of my students had with a devout Buddhist from his own country. This person was fairly familiar with basic Christian doctrines and many of the differences between Christianity and Buddhism. When my student asked her about what she thought about Christianity, she said that she thought TWO things.

She said the first thing was positive. She noted that Christians she knew tended to be kind. They helped people, and (working in the hospital as she does) she is impressed with how they demonstrate loving concern to fellow Christians, as well as to non-Christians. (I wish all Christians had such an outsider’s testimony.)

She said the second thing was negative. She noted that Christians acted like foreigners where she lives. They dress in foreign clothes. They listen to foreign music. They celebrate foreign holidays, and show little interest in local festivities or cultural values. They tend to look and act like the foreign missionaries who were or are among them, and like the colonizers who have now left.

 

Foreign and Friendly

In looking at the chart above, they would be in the Yellow Zone. The Christians in that region are F-F (Foreign but Friendly). That is not the worst place to be. Still, to this woman, to become a Christian, one needs to reject a lot of one’s cherished culture.

Figure 3.jpg

This is not a trivial thing. Going back to the “Human Trinity,” (as shown in the figure above) one aspect of our own personhood is our cultural identity. Becoming a Christian is supposed to be transformative, but it is not meant to “gut” our cultural identity— and certainly not by replacing one local identity with a different, foreign, cultural identity.

If one considers the Divine mandate that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself, certainly two aspects of such love are Kindness, and Cultural Respect. Jesus explained the love of one’s neighbor with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It showed such love as being expressed through human kindness that transcended cultural differences. Paul expressed love in terms of tearing down of cultural barriers as well, but the idea wasn’t via one culture subsuming another, but that cultures would be respected an honored. Paul would be a Greek to the Greeks and a Jew to the Jews. The church was wide open to all peoples regardless of their culture, and respecting of their cultures.

So to love one’s neighbor in a different culture, demonstration of kindness is needed but so is contextualization/cultural respect and localization. Sadly, sometimes we can’t even get the first half right. I was reading an article about barriers to evangelism in a different Buddhist country. One of the barriers was aggressive evangelism. One might wonder on this point. We usually assume that evangelism is a good thing and so a barrier is a lack of evangelism. However, often the methods of so-call evangelism are very much “in-your-face” aggressive and argumentative. In many countries arguing is disrespectful— especially so if done with someone older. I recall listening to American short-term missionaries visiting my city here in the Philippines and hearing a very aggressive and noisy presentation of the gospel. One I recall especially well– a young woman screaming (not trying to be sexist here… “screaming” is the correct term) at a man perhaps 20 years older than herself, “YOU MUST BE SAVED!!!!    YOU MUST BE SAVED!!!!!” Of course, he doesn’t HAVE to be saved— and I suspect that “he did not feel the love” from the experience. Reading FB posts from Christians (often Christian friends of mine, frankly) I find it strange how angry, argumentative, and just plain unnice so many of the posts are. FB is hardly a private chatroom with people who agree with everything one says. It is a public forum. Why in the world make people happy that they have nothing to do with your God?

Anyway, if one wishes to share Christ effectively in a different culture… it should be L-F (local and friendly), rather than foreign and unfriendly (F-U). Other options are in-between but still failing on some level to express true love of neighbor.

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Truth and Dialogue– Bringing Them Together

David Hesselgrave, in his book “Communicating Christ Cross-culturally,” has an interesting figure in Chapter 9 called “The Contextualization Continuum.”

Here is a version of it.

Hesselgrave Chapter 9

I find the figure interesting in some ways, and even useful. However, there are some aspects of it I disagree with.

1.  One part of the figure I disagreed with so strongly that I removed it from the figure here. Associated with “Orthodoxy” is something called “Apostolic Contextualization.” Associated with “Neo-Orthodoxy” and “Neo-Liberalism” is something called “Prophetic Contextualization.” Associated with “Liberalism” is “Syncretistic Contextualization.” I somewhat disagree with the last one, “Syncretistic Contextualization,” but to me the terms Apostolic and Prophetic Contextualizations are used randomly. I can see no linke between the terms and the concepts. In fact, if I did feel like I had to use the terms, I would probably switch Apostolic and Prophetic. The NT Apostles (I am thinking primarily of Paul, Barnabas, Peter and John) actively promoted and/or applied the idea that Eternal truths in Scripture are laden with cultural/temporal truths. Paul, Barnabas, and Peter recognized that Greeks do not/should not embrace Jewish culture to be Christian. John, did considerable work, especially in the Gospel of John, to express Christian teachings in with Greek concepts. To me that effort is more than simply a translation process.  Since OT Prophets, at least, generally deemphasize such an openness to other cultures, it seems like Apostolic Contextualization comes closest to relating to Neo-Orthodoxy and Prophetic to Orthodoxy (at least as the figure presents them).

2.  There is no way that one should describe the Method associated with Liberalism as Dialogic. Dialogue in no way expresses an opinion about truth. Perhaps the term was chosen because of the novel tendency of Evangelicals back in 1978 (when Hesselgrave’s book was written) to understand dialogue in line with John Hick and Raimon Panikkar. Their understanding of dialogue could arguably be seen as linked to a Liberal or Pluralistic perspective. On the other hand, perhaps the terms were chosen to be clever. Aliteration sounds nice (Didactic, Dialectic, Dialogic) even when it (perhaps) misinforms.

3.  The figure could be interpreted to mean that the more supra-cultural one interprets the Bible, the more orthodox one is. In my understanding, Orthodoxy has always questioned normalizing (blessing) one’s own culture, as well as any particular Biblical culture. As such, there should be a category further to the left on the figure for Schismatic or perhaps Particularistic groups.

This figure reminds me of the figure I use for dialogue:

Dialogue spectrum

One can bring these two figures together– relating Strategies of Contextualization and Strategies of Dialogue.

Strategies

Interpretation: 

The red line shows the theoretical spectrum of theology from more conservative to more liberal. The Green region would be the more normative strategies associated with the theological perspective. The Yellow region would be less normative, and Orange quite unlikely.  Of course, the redline as shown doesn’t truly exist. The range of theological perspectives do not fit comfortably onto  a single thin line.

The more conservative theologically, the more likely that the contextualization strategy is Didactic (focusing on how to translate the Bible and Christian teachings into the language and thought patterns of a target people). There is also a greater likelihood to utilize an Apologetic strategy of dialogue, emphasizing argument as a way to share the Christian message.

Of course, that is not always true. For example, many Conservatives may choose a Clarification strategy for Dialogue believing that it could be a more successful strategy. It would, however, be quite unlikely for Conservatives to utilize a Relativistic strategy for Dialogue or a “Dialogic” strategy for Contextualization since both tend to minimize the uniqueness of Christian revelation.

At the other end, being more theologically liberal, a “Dialogic” strategy of Contextualization and a Relativistic strategy for Dialogue would be more likely because of the tendency not to see Christian revelation as unique. That, however, is not automatic.

For me, I strongly support a Clarification strategy for Dialogue. For Contextualization, since I tend towards a “Counter-cultural approach” of contextualization, on this chart I suppose it is in the area close to where Didactic and Dialectic meet. That means I am not on the Red Line, but still in the Green Zone.

 

 

A Lot Like Lot

This post makes the, controversial (?), suggestion that Lot lacked cultural flexibility, and that this led to his downfall. If curious, please read on.Image result for lot in sodom

I was teaching a little seminar on Missionary Anthropology in Hong Kong a couple of days ago. I was talking about levels of acculturation— the fact that we often go through stages of adjusting ourselves to new cultures… and we never get to a place where we are comfortable with certain aspects of another culture. One of the students came up afterward and said that in an Intro to Missions class, she was taught that missionaries received a gift to acculturate to other cultures. What was my view on that?

I said that I basically agreed. And I think I can still say that after reflection.  I like to say that there are two major characteristics of a missionary:

  • Willingness (to go)
  • (cultural) Flexibility

I often note that a third characteristic of “Spirituality” is a myth. Missionaries rarely have a quality of spirituality that lines up with most Christian’s understanding of spirituality. Few are heavily pious or contemplative. And yet, it is quite narrow to limit spirituality to such things. Perhaps, it is wise to add a third characteristic that I could call:

  • Spiritual Resilience

A missionary can recognize God being with her whether being in her home culture, or far from home, whether being well-connected in a supportive community of faith, or spiritual alone— a stranger in a strange land.

Returning, for a moment, to the question above… is there a Missions Gift— a special gift to adapt to other cultures?  Maybe. Some have a gift or talent for language. (I don’t care about it being a gift versus a talent… both come from God. Worrying about which is which is a matter of labeling, not of substance.) Maybe some have a gift of cultural adaptation.

I have certainly met those who lack such flexibility— those who are culturally “brittle.” Some appear to be unable to see things through any other filter than their own culture. These probably should not be in Missions. Does cultural flexibility come as a gift from God? I don’t know. But I would suggest a few things.

First. Cultural flexibility does come, in part, from a personal choice. One commonly must make a conscious effort to bracket one’s natural tendency to respond via one’s cultural filter.

Second. Cultural flexibility is not an ON versus OFF thing. There is a spectrum. I have gotten stories of people on Short-term Missions who seem to have no capacity (or at least no desire) to learn ANYTHING from another culture. Every other culture “sucks” except their own. I have not met such extreme people in missions… but have found some that come close. These people get angry and frustrated very easily in other cultures. They often see people from other cultures as bigoted, dishonest, and manipulative. Since pretty much all people have those qualities, there is truth to their assessment. But more and more they attach these qualities to people of another culture. Such individuals ultimately either run back to their home culture… or wall themselves off from the culture they are in.

Third. Cultural flexibility is part of an overall process of adaptation to a culture. It continues with some aspects of a culture becoming normalized to the person, while other parts remain foreign for years and years.

Now… Let’s talk about Lot

Particularly, let’s examine Lot as a person with limited cultural flexibility. This is counter to the normal interpretation of the man. In fact, the more common view is that Lot was TOO flexible, while having too little spiritual resilience. This view may be correct… but I would like to suggest an alternative view.

Lot was described in the New Testament (II Peter 2) as a righteous man. This was also implied in Genesis 19 when God promised to save Sodom if there were 10 righteous men. This number wasn’t achieved, and yet Lot was rescued from the city regardless. Both the Old and New Testament suggest that he was righteous.

There are arguments against this. First, his choosing the nicer land for grazing rights over Abraham is seen by some as selfish. While I suppose that is somewhat true, Abraham did give him the choice, with the implication that either choice was acceptable. If Abraham offered for Lot to make a choice, but only one of the choices was moral, then Abraham would be the one at fault more than Lot.  Second, his move toward Sodom is seen metaphorically as a drift to sinfulness. This, of course, could also be true, but this involves considerable reading into the passage. Third, his lack of impact on the community he was in, as well as in his own family, can be seen as evidence of his lack of spirituality. Again this is a possibility, but there are other possibilities.

Let’s consider the possibility that Lot lacked cultural flexibility. Cultural flexibility does not mean, moral flexibility— allowing oneself to drift into sinfulness because “everyone else is doing it.” Cultural flexibility means able to be a channel of God’s light and blessing in a different culture. In essence, it is an adaptation to a culture that allows one to have impact on it while in it.

Consider II Peter 2:7-8. Here Lot is not the main issue, but is used as an example of God’s intent and ability to save the righteous from His judgment of evil. Speaking of God, it says:

He rescued Lot, a righteous man distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless 8(for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)—

The passage says that he was distressed and tormented. At first this sounds like good behavior of a righteous person. Yet, we don’t really find Jesus being described as distressed and tormented by sinful behavior around Him. He seemed more distressed by hypocrisy of “righteous” people, than the behavior of the unrighteous. Paul is described as a bit distressed by the great idolatry he saw in the Greek cities. However, the only time he seemed to be greatly distressed was against those who attempted to worship him. In Athens, a major center of idolatry, he was able to commend the Athenians in their great drive to be religious. Both Jesus and Paul (and Barnabas, and the other apostles) were able to adjust themselves to the culture they were in.

In other words, the description of Lot may not be typify the missionary ideal of spiritual resilience so much as inadequate cultural flexibility. A prophetic role in a sinful community is one of being an agent of change… while still learning to adapt to that culture.

Lot had essentially no impact on the community. This may suggest that he became as morally depraved as they were. But if that was so, why was he described as righteous and bothered intensely by the sinfulness of those around him? While moral failure may be a cause for lack of impact in a community, another reason can be cultural separation. In cultural separation, one holds onto one’s own culture too strongly without integration into the broader community. When this happens, the person is encapsulated in the community by his own culture… having an enclave that has little interaction with the broader community except as necessary.

This hypothesis finds support, I believe, in the vignette in Genesis where two angels (messengers of God) come to visit Lot, and some of the men in the community want to rape them. Lot seeks to protect the angels by offering his daughters. At first, this sounds like more on Lot’s moral depravity. But think about it for a moment. Sodom wasn’t a big city so Lot, a successful man in the community, should have the social capital and relational bonds to dissuade his neighbors. Yet he could not. This suggests that he was socially disconnected from the society within which he resided. His offering of his daughters, whether real in line with extremes of Middle East hospitality, or simply a ploy, points to a man who did not know how to interact with his neighbors. This is in line with a couple of short episodes with Abraham. Abraham, a righteous man and man of influence in his community, fell apart socially in other cultures. At the court of Abimelech and in Egypt, Abraham was so uncomfortable with the settings that he, in essence, protected himself by putting his wife at risk. There are similarities between this and what Lot did.

People who enter a new culture willingly without cultural flexibility will fail. If they lack spiritual resilience, they will fail morally. If, however, they have decent spiritual resilience, they will fail by failing to have an impact in the community. They will be culturally disconnected, distressed by the broader community, and unable to handle the social intricacies of the society. Chances are they will become a lot like Lot.

 

 

To Tell the Truth in Context

When I was young, a TV show I liked to watch was called “To Tell the Truth.” One person with an interesting job or story would be joined with others to talk to a board of celebrity panelists. The goal of the panelists iwas to determine who is telling the truth and who is lying. The goal of the contestants is to all talk as if, and answer questions as if, they they are the person being presented. Fooling the panelists would put money in the pockets of the contestants. My understanding is that they have revived this show in the US, but I haven’t seen it since I am now in Asia. Image result for to tell the truth show

The goal in the show, really, is not to lie but to deceive. Fooling the panelists is the aim, regardless of whether one uses lies or truth or half-truths or deceptive language.

Lies are a rather complicated thing. When young we are told that lying is telling something that isn’t true. But most jokes, parables, hypothetical problems, and such are, strictly speaking, not true (not based on reality or fact). We then learn that lying has as much to do with motive as fact. That’s why the key concept is “bearing false witness”— speaking falsehood to circumvent justice or promote corruption.

Then we start learning more subtleties such as saying things that are actually true, but are designed to misinform or deceive. I recall reading a fun article on writing references for former employees— using language that sounds rather positive, but is actually quite negative. For a former employee who would steal office supplies, “With Howard leaving, I definitely feel a great loss in our office.”

LIes and deception get more confusing when filtered through culture. When I was in the Navy, we had a huge amount of evaluation inflation. So if I wrote about one of my men in the division, “He is a very hard worker and deserves a promotion”— that was actually a slam. I wanted him out of my division. If he really WAS a very good worker I would say something like, “This many is top-notch, the best in my division and certainly one of the best in his rate anywhere in the Navy. He should be immediately promoted.” Something like that (I am out of practice). In the first sentence above where I described the person above as a hard worker, I was not lying. That is because meaning is always filtered through culture. BUPERS was able to clearly interpret what I was writing without confusion.  I was using truthful language withing the culture of Naval evaluation language.  I recall getting a bad evaluation in the Navy. It said I was smart, capable, hard-charging officer, and certain in the top 15% of other officers of my rank in the Navy. That was a very negative evaluation— and I knew it because I was very familiar with the language of evaluations. But because the words actually sound nice, it makes the negative message feel better. The evaluation could have said, “Bob is a dirtbag and should be dumped out of the Navy at the first opportunity, ” that the wording in the eval sounds much nicer. Cultures often provide a more pleasant way to say unpleasant things.

It becomes more challenging when people are from different cultures. Living in Asia, many Americans get angry because “Asians lie.” They say one thing, but mean another. However, that is often not true. Often they will say “Yes” when they really mean “No.” However, their tone of voice, and body language, make it very clear that they are really saying “No.” Many times, I have asked something from a friend or co-worker of mine, and they say “Yes,” they can do what I ask. But I can hear and see that the word is not in line with what they mean. So I respond with something like… “Well, maybe some other time, but thanks.” Then I see the tension leave them and they smile as if to say, “I am so glad you understood what I was trying to say.” If they meant “No” why would they say “Yes” but then mix it with verbal and physical cues to point to the opposite? There can be multiple reasons… but mostly it is related to the relationship game. Saying “Yes” to a request for a favor that the person cannot or doesn’t want to grant is like saying, “Your relationship with me is important. Therefore, I will say ‘Yes’ but I hope you understand that I am really saying ‘Yes’ to the relationship, not to the request.”

These subtleties are often lost on Westerners… but, truthfully, everyone does it.

In Osoba O. Otaigbe’s book “Building Cultural Intelligence in Church and Ministry” there is an interesting help that was given to immigrants or foreign workers who were living in England. The guide was meant to help the people understand what the British mean when they say some things. Here are some of the helps.

When British people say:  “I hear what you say.”

They mean:  “I disagree and do not wish to discuss it any further.”

When British people say:  “With the greatest respect…”

They mean:  “I think you are a fool.”

    <By the way, despite what one sees on some military TV shows, such as NCIS, military personnel do not say things like “With all due respect…” or “Request permission to speak freely.” At least they didn’t when I was in the Navy. That was because bot statements were universally understood to mean, “Captain, you are full of %$@&!”>

When British people say:  “Not bad.”

They mean:  “Good or very good.”

When British people say:  “Quite good.”

They mean:  “A bit disappointing.”

When British people say:  “Oh, by the way, …”

They mean:  “This is the primary purpose of the discussion.”

When British people say:  “That is an original point of view.”

They mean:  “You must be crazy.”

When British people say:  “I am sure it is my fault.”

They mean:  “It is your fault.”

This is not strictly a British thing.

When my dad would say, “Oh… can’t complain.”

He meant:  “I am have most excellent time, thank you.”

When an American says, “What’s up?” or “How ya doin’?”

They mean:  Very little beyond “I acknowledge your passing near me.”

When Christans respond to a request with “I will pray about it.”

They mean:  “I don’t plan to be of much help, but I hope things turn out okay.”

When Americans say, “Let’s do lunch sometime.”

They mean:  “I think you are okay of a person, but not okay enough to spend time with.”

When Americans say, “I’m kind of busy.”

They mean, “I don’t plan to reprioritize may schedule to accommodate you.”

It is pretty clear that language is filtered through culture and context. As such, where meaning is accurately transmitted from one person to another in one setting, may very much deceive in another.

In missions, meaning matters. Meaning is found in sentences not words, and in context, not in a “vaccuum.” This is one of the many reasons that effective communication is so difficult on the field.  Unlike the show “To Tell the Truth,”  our goal is not to deceive but to inform and enlighten. But it is easy in the mission field to confuse and deceive by telling the truth while not understanding the context.

Brief Glimmers of…. Hope

Years ago I read a quote from a book. I liked the quote so much that memorized it. Since I no longer have a copy of the book, I cannot verify that I am quoting it correctly. But it goes something like this:

“Life is a sucking, swirling eddy of despair, bespeckled by brief glimmers of false hope in an ever-blackening universe.”

-Quote (as best I can recollect it) from “Late Night with David Letterman: The Book” (ca 1985)

I am sure you are wondering why I would choose such a bleak quote. There are some reasons. The first has to do with orality. The second with theology. The third is exegetical.

Orality. I tried to verify the above quote by going to the Internet. That is usually a good way to verify most quotes. I wanted to verify the wording, and I wanted to know who first said it. After all, the book I read it in may not be the original source.

The curious thing was that I could not find any good information on the Web. The closest one I found was actually on a comment list on a post:

The human condition is a swirling, sucking eddy of despair – filled with small moments of false hope, erroneous assumptions and tuxedoed clowns, in an ever-blackening universe. (https://bukowskiforum.com/threads/a-minor-tiff.4798/)

Sadly, that quote gave no source information. There is also a forum seeking to determine the source: https://ask.metafilter.com/8604/Find-This-Quote

Image result for life is a sucking swirling eddy of despair

They worded the quote as:

“Life is just a swirling, sucking whirlpool of despair, filled with brief flashes of false hope, in an ever-blackening universe.”

The one making the query said that he or she first saw the quote in a college newspaper ad in 1982. Others in the forum did not know who first came up with the quote. Their versions varied, like

“Life is a swirling eddy of despair in an ever blackening universe”

There are a number of variations on the Internet, but no clear original form. I would argue that I probably come close to the original form. First, in a literary (non-oral) society, one might expect the quote to shorten and its words to simplify. So “bespeckled by brief glimmers” can become “occasional glimpses” or ‘brief flashes,” or a whole clause disappearing.

There is still a question. One individual above said he (or she) saw it in 1982. But since the book I quoted came out in 1985 and was basically a compilation of stuff from the show from 1983 until the book was finalized. It does make me wonder if the 1982 date listed above was incorrect. After all, an easy place for a quote to enter a culture orally (without being written down) would be on a daily/nightly TV show.

Key here, however, is that all of the versions still stay true to the basic quote.

As I have noted elsewhere, Just because we live in a literary society does not mean that oral transmission does not happen… it just means that oral transmission is just sloppier.

Theology. A more important question than attribution is “Why do people (regardless of its exact form) remember this quote? I think that it is because people believe it is false. They think it expresses a dismal attitude that the quoter does not actually believe in. The one who quotes it is, in fact, one who believes that the hope is not false but real. I am reminded about a quote of Moltmann that I have used before:

Hope alone is to be called ‘realistic’, because it alone takes seriously the possibilities with which all reality is fraught. It does not take things as they happen to stand or to lie, but as progressing, moving things with possibilities of change. Only as long as the world and the people in it are in a fragmented and experimental state which is not yet resolved, is there any sense in earthly hopes. The latter anticipate what is possible to reality, historic and moving as it is, and use their influence to decide the process of history. Thus hopes and anticipation of the future are not a transfiguring glow superimposed upon a darkened existence, but are realistic ways of perceiving the scope of our real possibilities, and as such they set everything in motion and keep it in a state of change.

(See https://munsonmissions.org/2016/01/27/the-hopeful-pessimist/)

Exegetical. Some people believe that not knowing the context or the author is unimportant to the meaning. The words are just words, and we provide the meaning(s) as the reader(s). There can be cases where this is true. However, the quote appears to need a context. After all, if it was created by a writer of the Late Night With David Letterman Show, then it appears clear that it is meant to be cynical humor, and the hyperbolic language makes sense. But since we don’t know the source, it is possible that the language is meant to be taken without irony or humor.

It is the same problem that one gets with SMS (text) messages. They come without non-verbal cues… so one really needs to have a firm sense of the context and the person writing it to know how to interpret it.

Counter-cultural Contextual Storying

From Chapter of Same Name in Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative and Culture
I believe that Counter-cultural contextualization best describes making the Christian message relevant and resonant in a specific cultural setting. The goal is to contrast the Christian message to the surrounding culture, but without being “anti-culture.” Counterculture suggests a critical agency to use the culture, esteeming the good, while challenging that which is false.
Tied to this is the idea of the “subversive fulfillment” of symbols and cultural characteristics. By this is meant that each culture has good in it and the symbols/metaphors that are within the culture can be used to tear down (subvert) aspects of the culture that are destructive, fulfilling the potential of that culture to be a holy environment of God’s people. As noted in Endnote 1 for Chapter 7, Crossan described parables as narrative that subverts the world. If that is accurate, then parables are perhaps the best form of narrative for subversive fulfillment and counter-cultural contextualization.
The idea that the Gospel comes as “subversive fulfillment” of a culture was put forward by Hendrick Kraemer, where the Gospel fulfills the needs found in cultures while also challenges much of the worldview and underlying beliefs. The same can be said of symbols and concepts. The following is a quote by Willem A. Visser ‘t ‘Hooft,
Key-words from other religions when taken over by the Christian Church are like displaced persons, uprooted and unassimilated until they are naturalised. The uncritical introduction of such words into Christian terminology can only lead to that syncretism that denies the uniqueness and specific character of the different religions and creates a grey relativism. What is needed is to re-interpret the traditional concepts, to set them in a new context, to fill them with biblical content. Kraemer uses the term ―subversive fulfillment and in the same way we could speak of subversive accommodation. Words from the traditional culture and religion must be used, but they must be converted in the way in which Paul and John converted Greek philosophical and religious concepts.
If the message of Christ is presented as an attack on the entire culture, it will be rejected, or accepted as a foreign faith acting as a thin veneer over the underlying worldview. Paul Hiebert would call this non-contextualization. One is reminded of the Jehovah’s Witness religion where anything that is labelled as having “pagan roots” is rejected. Since almost everything has pagan roots at some point, one can quickly be straight-jacketed by such a principle. Or one can look to the Islamic practice of diffusion of faith (as described by Lamin Sanneh, contrasting translation of faith) Both viewpoints in the end tend to bless a specific culture, whether it be New Testament Greek Christian culture, or 7th century Western Arabic culture.
If the message of Christ is not presented so that it is subversive or counter-cultural, if it is presented to be compatible with the broad culture (both good and bad), there is a tendency to create a syncretistic faith. Hiebert would describe this as uncritical contextualization.
What is needed, using again Hiebert’s terminology, is “critical contextualization.” While others may disagree (and do disagree) I see critical contextualization as best related to counter-cultural contextualization. Stephen Bevans in “Models of Contextual Theology” classifies the different forms of contextualization into six broad categories. It seems to me that the one that is the closest to the truth is the category he describes as “Counter-cultural contextualization.” He notes that some describe this form as “encounter contextualization” or “prophetic contextualization.” I don’t care for those terms since they appear to over-spiritualize a process that may or may not do justice to the term.
Repeating what was said before, Counter-culture is not Anti-culture. An anti-cultural attitude rejects a culture without making the effort to recognize and redeem the good. A counter-cultural attitude rejects failings in a culture while living with and within, and even affirming other aspects of, that culture. This suggests that a counter-cultural contextualization requires:
1. Understand the symbols of the culture. If the basic characteristic of culture is its formation and utilization of symbols to provide the interface between individuals in society with the natural world, one cannot understand a culture without understanding its symbols…. its values, stories, myths, priorities.
2. Analyze the culture through the eyes of Scripture. This process requires solid exegesis to avoid the extremes of cultural imperialism on one side and excessive accommodation on the other. In some cases, the analysis may lead to modest rejection of surface behaviors. In other cases, important aspects of the worldview must be challenged. However, the good should always be affirmed.
3. Utilize the symbols of the culture to challenge it. This should be done sympathetically, affirming of the good within the culture.
This is what Jesus did in the form of parables. Jesus used relevant symbols within the 1st century Jewish culture to challenge aspects of that culture. Wine, vines, shepherds, sheep, marriage feasts, light, salt, slavery, and other items ingrained in Jewish culture were used to challenge common perceptions and values in that culture.
Since parables are stories rooted firmly in the symbolic structure of a culture and attacks certain beliefs within that culture, parables are an important part in counter-cultural contextualization. Counter-cultural contextualization is grounded in solid hermeneutics. However, its application is definitely dependent on the creative and artistic.
Great, But Now What?
How can this be done? It is difficult to train to be artistic. But a few things come to mind.
A. Learn the stories that people in a culture enjoy to discover cultural themes. In the US, a dominant cultural trait is achievement (the Horatio Alger, “rags to riches” motif). Another is the American Dream (economic ascendancy of a family over succeeding generations). Another could be the underdog as victor (David over Goliath). In the Philippines luck (suarte) and fatalism (bahala na) appears to be a major concern. Another could be the Philippine dream (Educating children so they can get good jobs overseas and send money back home). An additional one could be the appreciation of getting along with one another despite substantive disagreement (pakikisama). Another one (although starting to reduce) is the (unwarranted) sense of inferiority to foreigners. These traits provide the language of stories, but also the areas to challenge.
B. Read and watch stories that practice the form of the parable. This can be uncomfortable. A story that challenges an important part of American culture is likely to be considered Un-American. Such
writers may be thought of as being Un-American, or troublemakers. The same is true of writers who act in the counter-culture of other cultures and nations. Christians in a particular culture tend to strongy distrust the counter-culture, because it impinges on their own comfort zone. But even if one ultimately rejects the messages of the counter-culture after critical reflection, there is value in listening. A story such as “Citizen Kane” or “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” can challenge materialism, for example. Listening to news from other countries (or other viewpoints within one’s own country) may attack excessive nationalism or mono-culturalism.
C. Master the short-story. I enjoy reading O Henry stories although they are decades old. They are often humorous, short, and have a twist at the end. Even today, “The Gift of the Magi” (O Henry) and “A Christmas Carol” (Dickens) are remembered and provide a challenge (if one takes the time to hear the challenge in the story). A good parable can be harsh or dramatic, such as “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” but can also be given in humous form (a similar message is provided in the movie “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” for example). Seek competence in the narrative form over the didactic, or polemic forms. Entertainment value is a real value. A good story with a good message that has little to no entertainment value is, simply, not a good story.
D. Practice. One can look at existing stories and parables and see which ones can be used or modified for a new culture. For example, I have seen the story of the Prodigal Son reinterpreted very successfully for the Highlands of Luzon. The tribal groups here have seen far too many of their children leave the rice terraces, lured into the Lowlands and the big cities (such as Manila or Baguio City) and the corresponding vices there.4 The parable of the Prodigal Son only needs modest changes to be very relevant in showing the father who overlooks the shamelessness (walang hiya) of the son and risks personal status to forgive and restore him into the tightly knit family and village. Taking a well established story or story form and changing perspective or roles can greatly surprise and change the message.
E. Live it.  Jesus created stories by living them. Jesus challenged legalistic cultural rules of His time by violating them. These violations (grabbing wheat berries on Saturday, or not ritually washing) may not be understood in a different culture, but they were easy to recognize in that culture. Stories are not simply told… they are lived out.
Final Thought
It has often been said that the pen is mightier than the sword. Is this true? The jury is still out on that one. Sometimes, the sword has won out over ideas and writing. However, the impact of ideas and great storytellers has typically been greater than great warriors. Warriors must train well to use the tools of their trade well, and be sure of their targets and objectives. Those who are involved with “theo-storying” must, then, be even that much more concerned with their training and objectives. The research into the culture and the care in crafting illustrations, revelations, myths, and parables should be considered to be as much part of ministry as preaching, evangelizing, and discipling.

Reclaiming Jesus in Diversity

Mostly this post is to point you to read and consider an article of the same name on the Global Theology webpage.

I would like to add first, though, that the issue is quite relevant to Missions.

  • One of my students is writing a paper on expressing the message of the Gospel to Theravada Buddhists in Myanmar. The paper notes that differences between Christian and Buddhist doctrine are actually lesser problems. The bigger problems are that Buddhists there think of Christianity as foreign, Western, and colonialist. Christ is seen as a Western religious teacher, rather than Asian. Also Christian teachings as filtered through the Western Church has expressed itself theologically in the language and concerns of Europeans and Americans rather than Asians.
  • Some revolts against Christianity have sprung from misconceptions about what actually constitutes Christianity, and thus “Why is Christ”? An obvious one is the revolt by many African-Americans against Christianity in the 1960s and early 1970s based on the woefully misinformed view that Muslims were less gleefully involved in the African slave trade than Christians. Christian missionaries have also supported some social ills, such as in creating “caste churches” or encouraging ethnic churches (by drawing people away from of ethnically diverse churches) in an ‘end justifies the means’ attempt towards church growth through homogeneous grouping. This latter activity may have drawn some… but it has soured many more.

If Christ cannot be seen as representing all groups within humanity, He cannot be seen as representing humanity and providing hope for humanity. If Christ cannot be seen as providing hope for all humanity, than Christianity certainly is not for all peoples.

Anyway, before this becomes a full post, I will stop here and recommend you visit Reclaiming Jesus in Diversity.

I suppose this also leads back to my book for Bible School students— Ministry in Diversity: Applied Cultural Anthropology for a Multicultural World.