Negative and Positive Words in Countercultural Balance

It is common to say that “Love is the most powerful force in the Universe.” It is part of romantic philosophy (if there is such a thing). It is often thought of as Christian. And perhaps it is. God is greater than the Universe. Since God can be characterized by love, then love in some sense can be seen in those lights.

I don’t think I have the expertise to give a definitive answer to the above statement. But I feel pretty confident that the following statement is true:  “Hateful Words are more powerful than Loving Words.”

Westboro Baptist Church at the United Nations ...
Westboro Baptist Church at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, on the day of Pope Benedict’s address to the UN General Assembly. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


If you are not sure of this… feel free to try this experiment. If you have a loved one (spouse, son, daughter, parent, fiance’, best friend), start tomorrow morning with the statement, “____, I wanted to tell you that I really hate you.” The next day, start the day with “_____, I wanted to tell you that I really love you.” To make it a fair experiment, make sure that your attitude/emotions match the words you give. No irony, no cancellation or explanation of statements later. See the effects of the statements. Effectivity is essentially the power of the statements.

You might feel that this test is rigged since you are already dealing with a loved one. If you want a more reliable test, try the same on two other people, one a person that you hate (or at least strongly dislike) and one for whom you have ambivalence.

Since, you have not done the test yet, I don’t know what results you will get (perhaps you won’t even do the test… and that is okay… maybe for the best). However, in group dynamics it is found that positive supportive words are needed more than negative critical words. A healthy, functioning group should have around 5 times as many positive statements as negative statements. As one approaches 3 to 1 ratio things are becoming risky.  Well before one gets to 1 positive to 1 negative, things start to fall apart. Any group, partnership, or marraige that has equal amount of positive and negative statements is in deep trouble. This suggests two important thoughts.

1.  Negative statements have a stronger effect on a person than do positive statements. This suggests that they should be used more carefully and rarely.

2.  Some negative statements are needed. Negative statements, being more powerful, are a greater impetus for change. Positive statements are more likely to maintain some status quo (but not always, of course).

The church (any church) must provide some negative commentary on the society around it or it has no countercultural power… it provides no visible contrast. A church that gives no negative commentary will be seen as accommodating, and maybe even supporting, cultural problems. Some churches have chosen not to talk about sin or social justice… because it sounds negative. But some negative is needed… can hardly be salt and light in a world without some genuine critique of the world systems. However, the positive statements must greatly outweigh the negative. For the church to be seen as a loving place, it must be demonstrate loving words far more often than negative words. If it fails to do that (consider the example of “Westboro Baptist Church” for a church  that appears to be only hateful because so much of what it talks about is hateful in tone and content) the church provides nothing that decorates the Gospel of Christ (recalling Titus 2:10).

Churches and Missions must balance their role of loving positive statements with loving negative statements. But the balance must be strongly towards the positive because of the power of negative words. With a healthy balance (maybe 5 positive supportive acts or statements for ever 1 negative) the church can be seen as a loving, supportive, Christlike place, while still challenging that which is wrong around them.


“Counter-Cultural Contextualization” Quote

The Church of the Annunciation כנסיית הבשורה ב...
Image via Wikipedia

Short quote from a longer blog post by Simon and Henrietta Cozens

The idea of contextualization is that it is “receptor-oriented”; in other words, it lets the world set the agenda. Of course putting it in those terms is a pretty harsh charge, and it’s usually answered by Hiebert’s concept of “Critical Contextualization.” But this does not go far enough; it is still ultimately positive towards cultural trends. The “critical” dimension extends not simply to merely letting every part of culture into the Church—some things should be rejected.

But the Church is also meant to challenge culture. There is room for another concept beyond contextualization; there should also be counter-contextualization.

The full blog is at Counter-contextualization: Keeping our saltiness

<Update:  The above article does not appear to be accessible on the Web at the moment. but an article by Sunrise Houston Japanese Network is similarly relevant. You can see it HERE.>

The writer uses the term Counter-Contextualization, but it is the same thing as Counter-cultural contextualization. The article gives some interesting thoughts on this form of contextualization within Japanese society.

Jackson Wu has some nice information on this confusing issue. He describes two terms “Biblical Contextualization” and “Cultural Contextualization.” One describes the activity of viewing the Bible through a cultural lens (actually, we all see the Bible through a cultural lens… some are more cognizant of it than others). The other is viewing culture through a Biblical lens.

Effective contextualization does both simultaneously and in tension with each other. Some might fear that this may lead to syncretism or heresy. In fact, it is a possibility. However, the risk is less than failing to contextualize (or more properly speaking, to contextualize with out realizing it).

A short video (apparently the first of a series) from Jackson Wu is HERE.


Counter-Cultural Contextualization

<Another work in progress. The topic of contextualization is fraught with challenges. I doubt I will ever get to a point of confidence on how best to contextualize either the Gospel message or theology. I speak of this more in my book, “Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture“>

Stephen Bevans in “Models of Contextual Theology” classifies the different forms of contextualization into six (I believe it was 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.

Counter-culture is not Anti-culture. A counter-culture rejects failings in a culture while living with 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.

Parables are stories rooted firmly in the symbolic structure of a culture and attacks certain beliefs within that culture. Therefore, 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.

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 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. A story such as “Citizen Kane” or “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” can challenge materialism, for example.
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. 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.
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) and the corresponding vices there. 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.
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.