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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internationalization and Localization of Theology— Part 2

A critical step for converting video games to new culture/market is Internationalization. On initial consideration, it seems as if this is unnecessary. Why would one need to “internationalize” so as to ‘localize.” However, this step is needed unliess one wants to make the localization process incredibly distressing.

I must note that I am not a programmer (the only two languages I have ever programmed in are FORTRAN and Commodore-BASIC— pretty old-timey). However, there is a certain logic here. A game has storyline/plot, objectives, characters, language, scenery/scenes, mapping, and so forth and so on. For the game to be effectively localized to a new culture (consider taking a Japanese game and making it appreciated in the United States), many key things should not change. Storyline/plot, objectives, characters, map, scenes, and so forth probably shouldn’t change, or at least they shouldn’t change much. However, some things need to change a lot. The language (narration, dialogue, audio clips, street signs and more) need to change. While characters should stay the same generally, their names may need to change (but not always). Some plot points may need to be explained or modified somewhat to make it more understandable. Music may need to change (or not). Famously, Tetris kept its Russian folk music theme song as it spread around the world, but that doesn’t work.

Changing too many key elements would undermine the game… or at least cause it to lose its “DNA.” That is, an American playing a game should feel like they are playing the same game that is played in Japan, or in Germany, or in Zimbabwe. Change too much and it is no longer “the same game.” Change too little, and the foreigness can be distracting, non-immersive, or even incomprehensible.

To internationalize, the game is structured so that the core elements are kept constant, while the culturally dependent aspects are put in separate files. Additionally, the constant aspects are configured so as to accommodate localization. For example, if there is written text… the written text should be in a file that can be changed for different markets. However, the imagery that doesn’t change needs to be configured so that different languages with different scripts will still have ample room to be read. Ultimately, a good internationalization sets things up so that localization can be done so that it is local and immersive, while maintaining the same identifiable gameplay.

In theology there needs to be a similar thing going on for localization. There needs to be a genuine attempt to identify what is core and what is non-core.

Yes. This is not easy. However, part of the difficulty is that we as Christians have never been that good at identifying core issues. One might say that we have done better at one time with the great historical creeds of the past. And perhaps this is true… but the temptation to spread it out and nitpick on things tends to cause things to get to the point it is hard to identify what is critical and what is not.

<I AM GOING TO USE A LENGTHY EXAMPLE OF CHRISTIAN FUNDAMENTALISM TO SHOW SOME OF THE CHALLENGES WE MAY HAVE IN INTERNATIONALIZATION. IF THIS IS OF NO INTEREST TO YOU… sorry…>

Let me try an example for you. I was raised up a Christian Fundamentalist. Christian Fundamentalism has its roots in American Protestantism. While it seeks in many ways to stand out counterculturally from the broader American society, in many ways it is a product of that same culture. I don’t generally use that term to describe myself… yet in the classic sense of the term, I feel it may still apply to me. In the classic sense of the term, there were identified certain things that were seen as fundamental faith positions. In 1910, the following were set up as Fundamentals by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church.

  • Biblical inspiration and the infallibility of scripture
  • Virgin birth of Jesus
  • Belief that Christ’s death was the atonement for sin
  • Bodily resurrection of Jesus
  • Historical reality of the miracles of Jesus

If I remember right, when I was young, we also had the Trinity (Oneness of God in Three Persons) as a Fundamental belief. Not sure why that wasn’t included. Anyway, if one adds that one, you have six.

But let’s consider a couple of the challenges of using these to provide a basis for internationalization of Theology.

  1. Temptation to keep adding to the list. As time goes on, new concerns come up. As such, some things become less relevant, while other things become more relevant,. In the list above, the Virgin birth of Jesus seems pretty out of place. After all, if one accepts the “infallibility” of Scripture, and “the Historical reality of the miracles of Jesus,” it hardly seems worth mentioning the Virgin Birth. Perhaps it could be justified on the grounds that it stands against Adoptionism— a theological view that pops up in history here and there. However, when the list was made, the “Search for the Historical Jesus” was intense. As such, many thought it needed to be specially singled out. However, as time went on, other issues pushed to the front and those led to more “fundamentals,” For example, some added that Genesis 1 must be interpreted in a very literal (seven 24-hour period sort of literal) manner. I can see how we may say that “God is Creator and Designer and Sustainer of the Heavens and the Earth” is a Fundamental issue. But the question of “literalness” seems to be an argument over genre… not particularly fundamental. Just today, I was reading an article by Jackson Wu regarding the reaction of some religious leaders that Saddleback Church has ordained three women. Some of the language used by Tim Keller, John Piper, and D.A. Carson who were discussing this topic showed how deeply important it was to them that women should not be pastors. The article is HERE. Some others that agree with them in spirit but who are more vitriolic in language suggested that a church that has a ordained woman is not a church at all. Since there really is an awful lot of wiggle room in Biblical interpretation in this area (without even getting into the question of culture), this seems very much like an area where “good people can disagree.” However, the upheavals in society regarding gender roles and norms in recent decades has led to a hardlining (and demonizing) of beliefs, such that it looks almost as if this is a new “fundamental,” despite lacking a good theological basis for its prominence.
  2. What may be fundamental in one culture, may not necessarily be fundamental in another culture. A good example of this is the 3rd fundamental above… “The belief that Christ’s death was the atonement for sin.” Is this true? Yes, I definitely believe it is. Is it fundamental? In a sense it is… but in a sense it isn’t. What in the world do I mean by this? Well, the Bible does teach that Jesus died for our sins. But the Bible says that Jesus died for many reasons. Perhaps the most well-known passage in the Bible (John 3:16-17) says that Jesus was sent to us because of God’s great love for us (verse 16) and so that people will believe (verse 17). Of course, one could read those verses through a substitutionary atonement lens (God loved the world so much that He sent Jesus to die as an atoning sacrifice for our sins… For God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn it but to cover the sins of those who believe). However, it could be just as reasonable to swap it around and say that God’s great desire was to show us how much He loves us, and so chose sacrifice as a way of demonstrating that love in a way that we can identify. I would argue that both statements are true, and one is not necessarily more fundamental than the other. And when one brings in Honor-Shame theology utilizing the Biblical language of Adoption, and Family of God, a whole other perspective is there that is equally fundamental. (One can find other themes in the Bible regarding Christ’s death that are also arguably fundamental.) Of course, it is hard to know where to stop on this path. Going back to the ordaining women issue, if one is bringing Christian theology into a culture that is more gender egalitarian, is it “fundamental” to undermine this and promote a patriarchal structure? Maybe… maybe not. Certainly that is what has often been done here in the Philippines— a country where women have often had more power in society than in the US (including two being President of the Philippines). Yet many churches are horrified at that thought of women taking up prominent roles in church. This has come through both Catholic and Protestant missionaries. A local pastor went to one of our student’s parents to tell them that their daughter was “going to hell” (literally?) because she committed the sin of planting a church while being female. Is this a fundamental issue… or is it a cultural one driven by social conflicts?

Instead of adding other examples… creating even more discomfort… I would like to suggest something. In internationalizing theology, we should consider a more narrative approach rather than propositional approach. I know it has been popular to identify the “kerygma,” the core essence of the Gospel. However, the attempts to do that end up in expressions that tend to focus on contemporary theological concerns in a specific setting. A list of propositional truths commonly are really a list of statements that come from the results of debates in one cultural setting.

The core is the story. The Bible is the story of God… a love story in a sense. The leading characters, narrative and objectives are key. Changing the characters… changing the narrative,.. changing the objectives… these would destroy the “DNA” for the Christian message much as doing these would destroy the unique core of a video game.

I think the 3-culture model of contextualization has value. You can look AT THIS REGARDING THIS MODEL. It seeks to filter the message coming from the Missionary Culture (Culture A) through the “Biblical Culture” (Culture B) to get something that is somewhat ‘supracultural” that can be then contextualized (localized) into the Recipient Culture (Culture C). However, the question doesn’t go away. What is the core… what is supracultural? Charles Hodge felt, back in the 1800s, that slavery could not be seen as wrong in the sight of God because the Bible allowed it in the cultures in which it was written. Is that good theology? Does God allowing a certain practice to be done in a culture separated from ours by 2 to 3 millenia take precedence over God’s actions, and guidance to us as Christians? In the Biblical narrative, the Christian message is one of moving mankind from bondage to freedom. I would argue that it is this narrative that is at the heart of the Christian message— more “fundamental” to the core, the essence, the DNA of the Christian faith.

Will there be mistakes in this effort? Of course. MANY MANY MANY. But that is why there is dialogue in the process. In the next post (hopefully) I will suggest the roles in this process in the next installment.

Internationalization and Localization of Theology. Part 1

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

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

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

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

Cultural Patterns and Social Motivators

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

  • Justice
  • Honor
  • Reciprocity
  • Harmony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluating Contextual Theologies. Part 3

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

Contextual Theology as “Good Scandal”

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

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

6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

Chapter Thirteen Endnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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