Holy and Unholy Cultures?? (Part 1)

Much like there have been times in church history where people have embraced the idea of “holy language” (Hebrew, Koine Greek, Latin, Middle English) there have been periods of time and places where a similar sanctification has been placed on culture.

The Jerusalem Council struggled with this during the first century. Does a Greek have to become (culturally) a Jew to become a Christian? The decision, in the end, was NO. A Greek can remain culturally a Greek and still be Christian. This still left a lot to be determined. Is everything Greek sanctified and good? What about underlying beliefs or worldview?  It is pretty clear that some things need to radically change, but which things?

It seems to me that four places to get a bit of a grasp of this are:

  • Jerusalem Council (as recorded by Luke) and the Didache
  • Paul’s remarks of culture
  • Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus (chapter 5)

I will dig into none of these deeply.

1.  Jerusalem Council.  Here is the announcement as recorded by Luke regarding the summation of that council.

The apostles and elders, your brothers,

To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:


24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.


The keyword here is Flexibility, I think. The Apostles and Elders said that they would place no burdens on the Greek Christians except minor limitations on food, and on sexual misconduct.  If you think about it, what does this mean?  Is it saying that the Council was saying that it was okay for Greek Christians to lie, to steal, to murder? Certainly this is not the case. Is it saying that virtues such as integrity, godliness, and honor are not being placed on the Greeks Christians? Again, certainly not. What does appear to be said is three things:

  • The trappings of Jewish Culture are not necessary for non-Jews.
  • The ideals and taboos of Greek culture are, for the most part, commendable. Because of this, the Greek Christians do not need to be told “do not lie” because they already know this to be virtuous even before here the gospel message.
  • Some specific areas of Greek culture may be unhealthy and set aside if one is supposed to follow Christ. (However, Jesus also challenged some aspects of Jewish culture as unhealthy as well.)

Alan Garrow has made the suggestion that the Didache was originally a longer version of the short-form of the Jerusalem Council announcement. He has suggested that the Didache is less clear on the breaking down of Jewish cultural rules. However, when I look at the Didache it seems to me to be an expansion on the Sermon on the Mount… and as such, expresses principles that are in many ways supracultural as well as principles that challenge all cultures. The principles mentioned in the Didache certain do not encourage a rejection of Greek culture but recognize that the words of Jesus challenge both Jewish and Greek cultures.

2.  Paul’s comments on Culture. I am not going to go into details in this area, but simply point people to his writings to the Churches of Corinth and Galatia.  In these it could be said that Paul took a more extreme view than the Jerusalem Council. For example, to the church of Corinth he says that it is okay to eat food sacrificed to idols, as long as people are mature enough to handle it. Since idols are nothing, and the religion of the Greeks has no power, the danger in eating food sacrificed to idols is how it affects the belief and heart of the Greek Christians. In his message to the church of Galatia, he makes a point that when Greek and Jewish Christians are together, it is better for the Jews to adapt to the Greeks rather than remain separate. I would, however, describe his view as Pragmatic. Additionally, it seems like the focus is on avoiding a ghettoization of Christianity. Jewish Christians and Greek Christians should find ways to fellowship together rather than build walls of separation. And Greek Christians should be able to interact with Greek Pagans without fear and separation. I would also suggest they were a bit ad hoc, in that his words point to how broader principles would be carried out in this specific case.

3.  Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus.  Chapter 5. This chapter can be read in another post I wrote before.  Click HERE.  When you read it, it says three things about Christians.

  • In many ways, Christians fit into the culture so well that they are indistinguishable from the culture.
  • In some ways, Christians surpass those in the culture by living up to the ideals of the culture rather than the typical reality within the culture.
  • In some other ways, Christians live counter-culturally, by rejecting some specific aspects of culture that are opposed to the teachings of Jesus.

If one looks at these references, I believe oneIdealized Culture would have to see that culture (at least within the context of Jewish and Greek cultures) is generally good or neutral. It is Neutral in that it has distinguishing characteristics that are perfectly fine for Christian and non-Christian. It is Good in that it provides ideals that are often quite commendable and worthy of seeking to live up to. At the same time, culture can be seen negatively in three major ways. First, it can be seen as failing to live up to God’s standards. But is universal for all cultures fail in this area. Second, it can be seen as failing to live up to its own standards. Most all cultures idealize certain virtues and attack certain vices or taboos— but its members rarely live up to these standards.

Third, cultures may be seen as bad based on “demonization” by outsiders. They take certain qualities and broad-brush the culture undermining virtues, and exaggerating vices.

This third area will be looked more seriously in Part II.  But for now, based on the passages above, Christians should live in a culture on three levels:

  1. Christians should live in the culture as it is lived out by its members. As such, in many key ways, Christians should be indistinguishable from others in that culture.
  2. Christians should strive to live up to the ideals of the culture, not simply the culture as it is commonly lived.
  3. Christians should also live up to, as best as possible, God’s standards, being willing to reject cultural ideals and cultural norms WHEN NECESSARY.

Where one shifts between these two, good people can disagree. Paul and Peter appeared to disagree. Mature and immature believers in Corinth disagreed.

It is Okay for good people to disagree.

(But I think Part II will cover an area that is NOT Okay)



The More Difficult Task

A relevant question that could come up here is which is more difficult? Is it harder to to make theology relevant to a community, or faithful to God’s Word. At first glance, it may seem that it really depends on the person. For example, an untrained person who is fully enculturated (born into) culture “B” would be quite well-suited to providing a relevant theology– but one that is likely to be not true to God’s Word.

On the other hand, a seminary student enculturated and trained in culture “A” could be reasonably thought to be able to provide a theology that is true to God’s word, but is not relevant in culture “B.” But this is a mistake.

Consider the following figure.   While there are some definite limitations to this figure, it does show a couple of things fairly well. Culture “A” has within it a number of theologies that are relevant to it. The same is true of Culture “B.” Overlapping God’s Revelation with it, creates smaller regions. God’s Word as canon, provides a standard or limiter of what is acceptable to God. theologies culture

Region 1 is Theology that is well-contextualized to Culture A. It is relevant to the culture and is faithful to God’s revelation. Region 2, is a culture “A” that is conformed to or fulfilled through God’s Word. Similarly, Regions 4 and 3 are well-contextualized theology and fulfilled culture with respect to culture “B.”

But, of course, these are not all of the options. Region 7 is Culture “A” that is not conformed to God’s Word, and Region 8 is the similar situation for Culture “B.” Regions 5 and 6 are Theologies that are not conformed to God’s Word in Cultures “A” and “B,” respectively.

For a new believer enculturated in Culture “B,” poorly versed in God’s Word, it is much more likely that a theology developed by him (or her) would not properly be conformed to God’s Revelation. That is why Region 6 is shown as much larger than Region 4… God’s Word provides a limitation on all theologies that may be seen as relevant to that culture. It is much easier, and more likely, for this person to develop a theology that is relevant, but heterodox, and work towards developing a sub-culture that fails to be fulfilled by God’s Word.

For a seminarian enculturated in Culture “A” and trained in theology from that culture, the challenge is different but no less challenging. The seminarian would be challenged considerably in ministering in Culture “B.” He (again, or she… but I will use he here for simplicity of language) will be tempted to simply transport his theology over based on the presumption that it is the “correct” theology. The same struggle will occur with culture. He will be tempted to simply see the culture of his upbringing and training as the correct culture… and teach it. Unfortunately, the culture brought will seem foreign to the potential respondents, and the theology is likely to not deal with the situation of people in Culture “B.”

But suppose that the seminary graduate does intentionally seek to contextualize. He will be hit by two major limitations.

Limitation #1. His relative ignorance of Culture “B” will make it hard to find a Biblically sound, relevant theology (Region 4). It is a target easier to miss than to hit.

Limitation #2. His relative ignorance of God’s Revelation. One might assume that the seminarian is well-versed in Scripture. But he is versed in God’s revelation as it applies to his own culture (or sub-culture). God’s revelation is much greater than that.

(You may now be noting why I sort of apologized for this figure earlier. Overlapping contextual theologies, cultures, and God’s revelation is sort like overlapping varieties of apples with different forms of government– they are different types of things. Still, I hope that the relationships of the regions can make sense on some level.)

But which limitation is greater for the seminary graduate? It is the second one. Spending time in Culture “B” will gradually reveal the nuances of the culture… and subtleties that are beyond him can be filled in by host believers eventually. However, the expansion of one’s understanding of God’s Revelation to the point that it is clearly seen as it relates to a different culture is much harder. One might even suggest that without the Holy Spirit’s illumination, the task would be impossible.

An Example from the Bible

A.  As the Israelites escaped from Egypt, they eventually arrived at Mt. Sinai. There Moses went up to commune with God, while the Isrealites and the other non-Israelits who had escaped with them waited. When Moses failed to come down from the mountain after a long time, the people feared and asked Aaron to deal with the situation. In Exodus 32, Aaron makes an altar and a golden calf. Why would he do this?

In Egypt, the bull is sacred, and so he may have been drawing answers from the culture he was raised in (heterodox theology from culture A). On the other hand, knowing that they are heading to Canaan, where the bull is a symbol of Baal, “the local god,” this may have been a heterodox theology seeking relevance in culture B.

Before one get’s too critical, it must be noted that there are considerable similarities between orthodox Israelite Theology (as guided by the Mosaic Law) and Egyptian theology. According to Herodotus (The Horizon Book of Lost Worlds, by Leonard Cotrell, page 288ff), the Egyptians:

  • Practiced circumcision

  • Had a priesthood

  • Practice rites of cleanliness

  • Had rules regarding “clean” and “unclean” foods

  • Had animal sacrifice with requirements that the animals are unblemished.

  • Maintained rules of endogamy

In Egypt, the Bull was sacred to Apis, a god popularly worshiped in Memphis (Egypt) and often seen as a go-between of man and the higher gods. It is hardly surprising that Aaron might go in that direction. In Exodus 32:6, part of the worship was to “play,” suggesting the sexual activities associated with the Canaanite faith. This sympathetic magic was tied to fertility of families as well as the land. Apis, in Egypt, was also often seen as a god of fertility.

Aaron, with limited understanding of God’s will, made a pretty good attempt at guessing what God would want based on his understanding of Egyptian culture, and perhaps his limited understanding of Canaanite culture. It wasn’t all that hard.

But he was still wrong. It took God’s Word, coming through Moses, to clarity what God expected of them. The result was something that would “make sense” to most of the people, while still deeply challenging them to change.

Interestingly, God’s revelation to Moses actually was not simply to one culture, but to two. The revelation was to Israel, a nomadic people– but also to Israel, a sedentary people.

B.  In the New Testament, we find the Apostles and church leaders struggling with the issue of how God’s revelation would apply to non-Jews. The Apostles and church leaders would be seen as well-versed in Scripture, as well as the words of Jesus. Yet, they truly struggled with this. The Jerusalem Council was where this was dealt with as a body. The action of the Holy Spirit helped to sway the body to the understanding that Greeks do not have to become Jews to become Christians. Even after the council, however, struggles remained, as seen in differences between Paul’s understanding and the council decision (there is no indication at least that Paul rejected the eating of blood for Gentiles). It is also seen in the Epistle to the Galatians (if one accepts that that letter was written after the Jerusalem Council), where people who were apparently well-versed in the Hebrew Bible differed considerably from Paul and the Apostles in its application to Greeks.

Knowing Scripture is not enough. It is a huge challenge to understand Scripture to see its relevance and application in a different culture than one’s own. In truth, understanding a different culture is “the easy part.”

Is the Bible Translatable? Part 3

Part 1 of this overall topic I suggested options regarding the translatability of the Bible. I suggested that the Bible is translatable, meaning that the Bible translated is still the Bible. Part 2 suggests the ramifications of saying that the Bible is translatable. It is a challenging viewpoint. Abd al-Jabbar in 995 AD (reference “Translating the Message” by Lamin Sanneh) wrote considerably on (against) Christians and the “Hellenization” of the teachings of Jesus. Of course I would argue that the primary underlying purpose of Al-Jabbar’s book is to deal with the fairly obvious issue that Mohammed’s interpretation of Jesus is considerably different from the Apostle’s interpretation. Al-Jabbar argued strenuously that the problem was that Jesus was “Hellenized”— translated into Greco-Roman culture while the Quran portrays a Semitic (although not Jewish) culture. Much of the rest of al-Jabbar’s arguments appear to draw more from his personal aesthetics than logic. In other words, al-Jabbar liked the idea that God’s revelation is not, or at least should not be, translatable. If one does not share such a preference, the arguments become weaker. Since al-Jabbar had been enculturated into a language and culture quite similar to that of the original writing down of the Quran, his aesthetic preference is quite understanable… but would apply to essentially no one in the 21st century.


Image result for ibaloi bible
Ibaloi Translation of the Bible


The Bible, in my mind at least, argues strongly for God’s message being translatable.

1. Pentecost. It is sad that many miss fairly obvious point of Pentecost. Some like to take the “speaking in other languages” and ascribe it to ecstatics (in part a problem of sloppy application of 1611 lingo). In Acts 2, languages were languages and it is wonderful that this was true. How did the church start? The Holy Spirit came and filled the 120 initiating the church age. The defining character of the Pentecost was that the message of God was given to Jesus’ disciples translated into the languages (and cultures) of the different groups who were present.

The defining characteristic of the church from the start is that God’s words are God’s Words regardless of language or culture.

2. The Gospels. Jesus spoke mostly, if not completely, in Aramaic. However, all four Gospels were written in Koine Greek– the lingua franca of the common people. Church tradition says that the Gospel of Matthew was originially written in Hebrew and then later translated. There would be nothing wrong if that was true, but it seems doubtful. If one assumes that the traditional authors ascribed for each Gospel is correct, Matthew was a Galilean Jew who decided to translate the story of Jesus into common Greek.. Mark was a Hellenistic Jew who took the recollections of Peter, a Galilean Jew, and decided to translate the story of Jesus into common Greek. Luke may have been Greek, but still took the eye witness accounts of Jesus life and words and translated them into common Greek. John was another Galilean Jew who decided to translate the story of Jesus into common Greek. In other words, it is not the case that Jesus’ message and story was taken over by the Greeks. Rather, the followers of Christ, the ones who were to carry the message of Christ to the world, made a conscious choice to translate the message of Jesus into the common language of most of the known world.

The OT (Hebrew Bble) referenced in the Gospels was the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew text. The Gospel writers utilized the LXX when they were quoting the Hebrew Bible, and utilized the LXX when Jesus quoted from the Hebrew Bible. There was no undermining of the LXX by suggesting that it is “a translation of the message of the Hebrew Bible.”

3. Multi-cultural Bible. The Bible was written over many centuries (some suggest 1500 years… some less). During that time three languages were used: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. And language even changed during that time. Even more, there were numerous cultures over all of that time (from Pre-exile, to exile, to post-exile, to Roman era Judea, to Roman era Gentile regions). At the very least, this fact rejects the idea of a sacred culture or a sacred language.

4. Jerusalem Council. Acts 15 speaks of the council regarding contextualization, or cultural translation. Can a Christian be culturally Greek and be a Christian, or must he (or she) become culturually Jewish. The council decided that based on the works of the Holy Spirit with the Samaritans, Cornelius and family, and in Antioch and Asia Minor, God accepted Gentiles as followers of Christ without taking on Jewish culture.

It would be hard to make the argument that cultural translation is blessed by God while believing that language translation is not.

This is not to say that there are not risks of cultural distortion. I would argue that the doctrine of the Impassibilty of God has more to do with Greek ideals (and reimforced by Islamicist ideals) than what the Bible actually describes. Present American Christian culture seems, in my mind at least, to see Jesus as a White upper-middle class Republican. We have to be careful of cultural distortion… but such distortion doesn’t negate the value of translation.

5.  Babel Narrative. In Genesis is the story of God confusing the languages. As Evangelicals, we would take this story as historical. Some read the story as a punishment. However, that doesn’t seem to be the big issue. The people were supposed to multiply and spread all over the earth. They refused so God gave them different languages so that they would naturally separate based on different languages, than became the basis, presumably, for language families. But note that language diversity happens naturally when groups are isolated. If they obeyed God and spread out naturally, their languages would have diverged from each other. They refused so God divided their languages and then they spread out. Either way, it was God’s desire for language and cultural diversity.

6.  Revelation 7:9 speaks of the ideal setting of worship— around the throne of God. It is a balancing of unity and diversity. United in the act of worship and the object of worship. They were also united in message, clothing, and at least one aspect of action (waving palm branches). Here however, is where the unity stops. In terms of diversity, the crowd is composed of all nations (ethnic groups), tribes (‘phylon’), peoples, and languages. The last one, languages, could simply point to the diversity. But it also could point out that all different languages are included in the worship. I don’t know, but drawing from the Pentecost event, I would like to see it as evidence of language diversity, not simply diversity of people.

I will stop here. The impact of translation on people’s lives around the world could argue in favor of the translatability of the Bible. One could also point out that cultures often appear to open people up to the gospel rather than inhibit it. But I will leave that for others to consider. Ultimately, The Bible is translatable and still be the Bible. That is a good thing for us since the languages and cultures of the Bible are gone.

Religion and Problems of POWER and CONTROL

2nd_Crusade_council_at_Jerusalem, Conrad III, ...
2nd_Crusade_council_at_Jerusalem, Conrad III, Louis VII and Baldwin III (Photo credit: Wikipedia) I was looking at my Slideshare account. There I have three presentations on Spiritual or Religious abuse. They have been there 9 months or less and they have had over 1600 hits, and are continuing to build fairly rapidly. I know that for some of you 1600 hits is not a lot. But these are not posts for having chiseled abs. These presentations are not pictures of flowers and small furry animals with inspiration saying overlays. These are presentations about people who have been abused in their spiritual setting by spiritual leaders/mentors who were supposed to be interested in doing God’s work, which includes Christlike caring for these people. Kind of a bummer of a topic. I get a few hits on topics on religocentrism or historical methodology of missions (and other topics that lack that certain pizazz) and get nothing like 1600 hits.

I am left with a belief that these numbers on poorly advertised presentations from an (admittedly) obscure compiler suggests that this topic is a BIG concern. Oh sure, it could be that the hits are from fully secularized individuals who, to feel good about their god-free life choices, like to look up pages on people who have made different choices and suffered for them. I believe that most of the hits are from people that are people of faith (or people who were of faith) who have been hurt by those who were called to help.

Many of these abusers were created not born. That is, they did not start out as abusers, or abusive. They may have even started out as sincere individuals. But they became part of a flawed structure or hierarchy. The hierarchy may have been of their own creation, but the initial intent of the structure was not to abuse.

Saying the problem is “sin” is too simplistic. Not that it would be wrong to say the problem is sin. But sin is always with us, so we aren’t addressing the problem in a meaningful way.

It seems to me that we lack a good theology and methodology for dealing with the issues of Power and Control.

1.  Theology

Many Christians I have talked to seem to have a 16th century perspective of power and control. If one has the power to control, and the right to control, one must control without limit. I have come across this in terms of God. If God is all powerful, and God has the right to control all things, then it is logical, to some, that he MUST CONTROL all things. Of course, this is a complete fallacy. The power to control and the right to control does not necessitate the desire to control.

In Ecclesiology we see it as well. We see the Apostles (the Twelve) given power and authority. Commonly, we draw the somewhat logical(?) conclusion that the Apostles did in fact control the church. This does not appear to be true. The apostles set up the Church of Jerusalem, but did not appear to rule it. James the half-brother of Jesus appeared to be an early (the first?) senior elder/ bishop/ overseer/ presbyter/ pastor of the church of Jerusalem. Even the one time the Twelve seem to exercise extensive ecclesiastical control in the Universal church (the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15) they appear to merely be senior voices of a common developing consensus. Paul, despite his acerbic moments, appeared to rarely if ever control and only occasionally emphasized his authority. His focus was almost always to persuade with words and encourage churches to be guided by the Spirit of God. On the other hand, it does appear to me, at least, that St. Ignatius in the early 2nd century did have a view of church leaders as being those who should exercise a high level of control in their churches. However, even there, the fact that Ignatius kept writing letters to this effect to churches suggests that this was not the common attitude and/or belief and/or practice in the churches at the time.

2. Methodology

There is often the presumption that “too many cooks spoil the soup.” One needs one creative vision to make things happen. There are certain examples where this has been true. Yet it seems to me that evidence points to more failures than successes of this philosophy. Even organizations where a strong controlling visionary leader was faithful to the end often are ill-equipped to handle the chaos of transfer of such control and power after the leader is gone. The Bible notes the value of having many counselors, noting the limits of a king to rule wisely without such help. Samuel cautioned even the very idea of .having a king. In church this cautious note is often interpreted as Human Monarchy versus Theocracy (a battle between two autocratic systems). But, in fact, the system of government before the ascendancy of kings was fairly decentralized.  Moses was fairly autocratic (though even here, the story with Jethro provides a caution to the wisdom of not having some some decentralization of control) . Joshua was also fairly autocratic, but after this such control went away. We like to look at the book of Judges as a time of chaos (when there was no king and everyone did what is right in their own eyes) but I see little evidence to suggest one should take this period of time to evidence the benefits of centralizing of power and control. The words of the major and minor prophets seem to reject such a simplistic view.

Today, some churches combine power and control within the same person or persons. This often breeds abusive situations. Often the argument is that it increases effectivity. The vision of one (presumably getting his or her vision from God) is given the control to effect that vision. Again, I believe we see the problems in many churches where alleged effectivity is given priority in decision-making. In healthy secular organizations and in healthy governmental systems, checks and balances are put into place to limit the accumulation of an inordinate power and control in one location or person. The Caesars (Julius through Trajan and Hadrian) may have made Rome great(er) but they also set up governing precedents that weakened the empire in the long-term.

In missions, there are a growing number of books (such as by Glenn Schwartz in “When Charity Destroys Dignity: Overcoming Unhealthy Dependency in the Christian Movement”) that provide caution of missions exercising a considerable amount of power and control in the mission field. They provide many examples of the problems that come from that. The biggest one tends to be Dependency.

So what to do?

A.  Separate power and control. In public corporations, the power is in the hands of the shareholders. They dole out power and authority to the Board of Trustees. These, in turn, dole out power and authority to those who actually control the organization on a day to day basis. This separation of power/authority and control provides a check/balance to those who run things. Government does this as well. In representative democracies, the power is in the hands of the people and they dole out such power to representatives. These representatives (in the legislative side) dole out power (commonly money) and authority (legislation) to the executive (control) part of government. In congregational churches a representative democracy also exists where the power is in the hands of the people, while the control is in the hands of a council or board. The members of the church empower the leaders but also provide a check for their control.

B. Change our attitude about power. Jesus spoke a great deal (especially in the Sermon on the Mount) about effecting change while eschewing traditional forms of power and authority. The Sermon on Mount is counterintuitive. One can understand the triumphalism of Eusebius of Antioch at the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity (and the legal power and prestige gained for the church from this event) after centuries of degradation and powerlessness. Yet with hindsight we can see that it was a mixed blessing. The Cross and the Sword, or the Church and the Sceptor have issues that we as a church STILL have not fully come to terms with.

Many churches find “Power” a popular topic. Some have the entertaining trait of the overemphasis of the word in prayers and sermons (POWWWW-errrrrrrr!). Power encounter is a popularized method of missions. But history (most recently confirmed in the growth of the disempowered underground church movements in China) seems to show that the church that Jesus set up has been most effective dwelling and acting from a position of weakness.

I doubt this is the final thoughts on this topic… but it is a start (and one has to start somewhere).

Who is the Contextualizer

The Chinese Ancestor altar in my sino khmer ho...
Ancestor Shrine. Image via Wikipedia

Missions commonly today focuses on the idea that contextualization is necessary. Contextualization is the enculturation of the gospel message. A Christian 1st century Greek did not, and should not live like a Christian 1st century Jew. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 recognized Unity within Christ while maintaining Diversity in Culture. Today, in missions we seek to do the same thing.

But who, actually, does the contextualization?  Options:

1.  The missionary. This is the most common explicit or implicit answer given. Missionaries are the cross-cultural experts. Their etic (outsider) perspective of the culture in question and (presumed) Biblical understanding should make them the best at bridging the gap.

However, missionaries often have no clue. Their understanding of the culture they’re working in is often limited to behavior and artifacts, not the underlying beliefs and worldview. They also have problems in that they see the world through glasses shaded by their home culture.

Example:  Consider Asian Ancestor worship. To an American missionary, the whole Eastern way of dealing with ancestors seems like worship and so should be ended. However, consider American practices with the dead. We commonly:

-Take the dead and dress them up and embalm them much like Egyptians did.

-We put them in expensive wooden boxes and place them in the altar area of a church (or a church-like funeral home). There, we walk up solemnly to the box look down at the deceased and commonly say a prayer.

-We cover the box and surrounding area in the church with flower offerings and, often, money gifts.

-We place them in the ground in an area generally considered sacred, and erect a graven statue, plaque, or altar shaped stone.

-We commonly keep the area where the deceased is buried cared for, returning to give flower offerings and often say a prayer when we visit.

American Christians would almost unanimously assert that NONE of this is worship of the deceased. They would say they are honoring (showing respect) for the dead and going through socially appropriate steps of mourning. To an outsider these behaviors may look like worship, but they are not. Therefore, missionaries need to be very careful when looking at Asian death practices before assuming they know which things are honoring (a good thing), and which things are worship (worship being something only to be reserved for God). Missionaries should also be careful before assuming which prayers are directed to the ancestor (not acceptable in Christian belief), those directed for the ancestor (questionable, but more acceptable), or directed to God with the ancestor as the focal point of remembrance.

2. The local believers. This makes more sense. The local people have an emic (insider) perspective of their own culture. As they grow in faith, they begin to recognize the good and bad aspects of their own culture.

There are problems here as well. First, young Christians (like young people) learn through modelling. If they become Christians and are serious in the faith, they will look to the only other Christians in the area to determine how they should live. In many places, these models are the missionaries. In other places, it may be other Christians who have been trained up by missionaries who are more culturally imperialistic. In yet other situations, the models may be heterodox groups quick to jump in to snatch away the little faith these new believers may have. A missionary who does not assist and equip young believers in the integration of their faith with their home culture, is leaving baby lambs out with the wolves.

Still, the positive side of this cannot be ignored. Consider the ancestor worship again. Many Asian Christians believe that they can practice a majority of the practices of “ancestor worship”. They can still pray (to God), they can still give little offerings (like American Christians putting flowers on graves). However, they will not light incense at the graves. They believe that within their culture, this crosses a line and is not consistent with being an Asian Christian. (This is not a universal understanding, of course. This is just one perspective).

3.  God/Holy Spirit. Some might argue that God contextualizes, we don’t. The Holy Spirit reveals how we should live.

This always sounds spiritual… but one should always watch out for things that “sound spiritual”. If God has called us to do something, we are NOT being spiritual by refusing to do it and tossing it back to God. Secondly, far too many people use the Holy Spirit to squelch discussion. After all, if the Holy Spirit said to do something (even if it seems to be foolish, or even evil) there is not a lot of wiggle room for discussion. One must either reject the message (and the messenger) or accept it without condition.

4.  The Bible. Again, this sounds spiritual, but it is not. The Bible does not give a lot of details of how to apply the faith to specific cultures. We know how it applied to 1st century Jewish society, 1st century Hellinized Jewish society, and 1st century Greek society. This does not say much about contextualizing for a people group in Tawi Tawi, Philippines, or a village in Nunuvut, Canada.

In practice, when people point to the Bible as the full guide for behavior (not just principles), they are generally pointing to a 20th (or 21st) century interpretation of the Bible in a different culture. Cultural imperialism is restored. Contextualization is theologizing (study of man and his relation with God within a specific setting). Theologizing bridges the gap between God’s revelation, and man’s context. God’s revelation may be set, but man’s context is fluid, so theologizing (contextualizing) must be fluid.

5.  Local Society. Since contextualization involves theologizing within the context of the local society, one could let that society judge what it means to be a Christian within its own context. Of course, there is not a supermind called “local society”. In practice it means that contextualization is the work of everybody and nobody.

Clearly, the problem is that local society has good and bad aspects. Societies are often blind to their own failings (and may not even be that aware of their own strengths). Contextualization is not simply blessing what a culture does. It involves a critical judgment.

Consider the Jerusalem Council. This council in Acts 15 was the culmination of many steps.

a. The model of Christ (particularly in Matthew) as an international, not simply national leader and God.

b.  God working with Philip the Evangelist, Peter, Cornelius, Barnabbas, and Paul, as well as many believers of different cultural backgrounds.

c.   The gathering for reports, discussion, and prayer of different Christian perspectives for a group decision.

If you see this, you find God working in it (Christ modelling, the Spirit guiding, and the Father saving/transforming). You see missionaries interacting with local cultures and believers.

Let’s return to the bridge. If one side of the bridge is God’s revelation (His word), and the other side is the local culture, then the bridge itself is the contextualized theology. This bridge is built anchored at both ends (by God’s word and local culture) and is built by local believers, empowered by missionaries, both seeking God’s will throughout.

So who contextualizes? It guess all parties contextualize. However, the role of the missionary should decrease over time as the local believers self-theologize.

How is the process done best? I don’t know… I have seen far more bad examples of contextualization than good. What about you?

Christmas Musings

Living in the Philippines, Christmas is a big event. It has at least as much noise, food, gifts, parties, songs, and fellowship as the United States.

But there are two major groups here (groups that draw from a common Christian heritage) that do not celebrate Christmas. One of these is “Jehovah’s Witness” while the other is a locally grown group “Iglesia ni Cristo”. Within Evangelical circles they would be considered cultic groups… or more precisely “Christian-based religious groups with heterodox Christologies”. The arguments: we don’t know when Jesus was actually born, that Christmas has, in part, “pagan” roots.

I personally believe that Christmas is a good thing. The fact that Jesus was almost certainly born at a different time (perhaps in April) shouldn’t be overly important to anyone except those that believe that tying a celebration to an exact birth day is important (astrologers perhaps?)  But the second issue is important missiologically on a much broader scale than simply about whether to celebrate Christmas. The question is whether non-Christian elements make a Christian celebration impure or whether Christ purifies non-Christian elements.

Consider a few examples:

1.  Christmas is “Christianization” of a pagan event, Saturnalia. When Romans became Christians, the question was whether one had to reject the festivities of Saturnalia. The result was that the celebration of Christ’s birth was used as a replacement.

2.  In India, a very big celebration is “The Festival of Lights” or Diwali. Houses are decorated and it is very festive. One way of knowing that a family is Christian is that they have the undecorated houses. Some have suggested that a good Indian and Christian can find a way of joining his culture in celebration without falling into a paganistic trap.

3.  In the United States, there has been a resurgence in the Native American “Pow-wows”. At one time a pow-wow, or native dance was clearly and only tied to paganistic beliefs. Now, however, some groups do it as a way to connect to their culture, but do it as a celebration to Christ. Some pow-wows are even evangelistic in being used to share the Christian faith.

4.  Philippines Example #1. In the Cordillera Mountains (where I live) there are animistic groups and a number of tribes. One of the biggest cultural activities is the canao (pronounce it kan-YAO). It is a festival with dancing and other activities. Some local Christians join in. Many refuse. Some Christian groups have even used the canao as part of their celebration to God. A large church near us uses traditional instruments and dances to worship God. Curiously, many “American-style” local churches complain that they are using the devil’s instruments and dances. What is double curious is that those same churches that are complaining use electric guitars, drums, and rock-style music to worship. Why is that curious? Because 50 years ago, those instruments and style were considered devilish by many if not most Christians.  <Cultural bigotries are a funny, funny thing.>

5.  Philippines Example 2.  Most towns and barangays here have fiestas. They are often Catholic in origin (often with animistic roots) and have icons, a patron saint, and other aspects that are extremely uncomfortable to Protestants. Some feel they can find a way as Evangelical Christians to celebrate fiestas as part of community solidarity, while others do not.

6.  Pope Gregory (in 601) recommended that missionaries to the Britons accommodate as much as possible the local celebrations of the people. However, they should steer them to replace pagan gods with saints and other Christian elements. This concept of “accommodation” has been a fairly common element in Catholic missions to this day. Is this healthy or syncretistic?

I don’t plan to give an answer here. Obviously, the extremes in this area are problematic. Simply “blessing” the behaviors of all cultures is often to bless evil. William Carey, the “father of modern Protestant missions” often sought to find the best in Indian culture and literature. Yet he strenuously fought “suti” or widow-burning. One must oppose aspects of a culture that undeniably violate God’s will.

On the other hand, even those groups who are most vociferous in fighting the celebration of Christmas or other things with “pagan” elements, cannot and do not apply this consistently. The use of wheat or rice is not attacked because it has been used in pagan celebrations and practices for millenia. Few would say that the Greeks of the first century church would have to cease to be Greek (a clearly pagan culture) and become Jews. That was answered in Acts 15 at the Jerusalem Council.

Paul provides a more nuanced approach in the Bible when he speaks of meats sacrificed to idols. He said:

-Meat sacrificed to idols is no better or worse than other meats since the idols have no power. So don’t ask… it has no power for evil over you. You are safe to eat.

-If you are with someone who is weaker in the faith, don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols since that person may become confused and be led astray. The power is not in the idols, but in the confusion of the other person.

Taking this into account… (1)  one does not need to reject celebrations with pagan roots. Such roots has no power over a Christian. Christ can redeem all things. However, (2) there are some things that must always be rejected. And (3) there are always some people of weak faith who may need to be carefully nurtured.

The balance of these three truths will always make the contextualization of Christianity to other cultures a challenging and controversial thing.