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Musings on Missions and Evangelism: Contextualizing the Gospel (part 2)

11/19/2012

“Culture is the outcome and product of social interaction.  Consequently, people are active creators, rather than passive receivers, of culture.”[1]

This idea is key to understanding how cultures function, and thus how contextualization occurs. Symbols (i.e., language, rituals, behaviors, etc.) within a particular context do not have fixed meanings nor do they merely “symbolize” some universal meaning. Cultural symbols and their meanings are constantly contested, nuanced, and diversified as particular communities within the culture employ them in various situations and contexts. For example, what does the word “bad” mean? Most people would answer “not good.” However, if you are a big Michael Jackson fan, you might answer “awesome.” The linguistic symbol “bad” changes its meaning depending on the particular context in which it is used. Therefore, it is not accurate to think of contextualization as finding equivalent symbols from two cultures that refer to the same universal meaning. Cultural symbols, forms, and practices are always being contested and recreated in light of new experiences and circumstances.

Furthermore, cultural symbols are latent with layers of meaning and associations that vary between particular communities and individuals. Imagine two people meet together to talk about “peace.” One of them spent years in the Middle East as a U. N. peacekeeper and the other spent the majority of his young adult life in the 70’s listening to Jimi Hendrix and driving around in a VW van. They both may be using the symbol “peace” in the their conversation, but there is no way, at least in the initial stages, they mean the exact same thing. Their particular experiences and contexts shape the meaning and significance of the word, and only after lots of interaction and shared experiences does the meaning for each of them converge.

The point is that the meanings of symbols within a culture are always being negotiated. Thus, contextualization is not an act of finding two equivalent symbols in the respective cultures that refer to the same meaning, or universal. The missionary does have to start somewhere, so it is important to find words and forms that resemble the same meaning. But, we are being naïve if we think that the symbol we employ means exactly the same thing we intend.

In order for this to be clearer, let me use an example from my context. In the past when missionaries arrived in Thailand, one of the first things they had to decide was what Thai word to use for “God.” This might seem odd, but Thai-Buddhist cosmology does not have a “god” in the same sense as that of a Christian or Jew. Thus, missionaries had some work to do. They tried a few variations over the years, but, eventually, prajaow became the most common term used. The issue for contextualization is that prajaow can be used in a variety of spheres in Thai culture. It is used in reference to Buddha, the king, and feudal lords to name a few. Therefore, when a missionary says in Thai, “God bless you,” it is unlikely a Thai person conceives of a divine figure like Yahweh, the Creator God. When Thai non-Christians hear the word prajaow, they are most likely drawing from various parts of their imaginations as they try to make sense of the way in which we are using it. The result is that the manner in which a Thai conceives and relates to God, even as they learn more about this God, is necessarily going to differ from that of the missionary. This is inevitable. This is contextualization.

The point of this example is to show that contextualization is not a one-time act of translation from one set of cultural symbols to another. It is, instead, an ongoing process undertaken by the community of faith as it struggles to differentiate itself from the larger community by its particular, gospel-shaped use of commonly shared symbols and practices. Contextual theology means that the church gives a nuanced meaning, in light of the gospel, to the cultural symbols used in the surrounding society.  This is not only true in theory, but it is the way theology and Christian practices have always developed.  Or as Kathryn Tanner explains, “Christian practices. . . create meaning through a process of consumption. . . A Christian way of life is, then, essentially parasitic; it has to establish relations with other ways of life, it has to take from them, in order to be one itself.”  In other words, “Christian practices are always the practices of others made odd.”[2]  Theological meaning, thus, develops when the gospel joins the contest of establishing the meaning of cultural symbols.

The task of the missionary, therefore, is to encourage, enable and empower local Christians to produce new and fresh meanings for common symbols and practices as their lives intersect with the narrative of God in scripture, the transformative power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the activity of the Holy Spirit in their midst. This implies that a primary responsibility of the missionary is to immerse one’s self into the cultural symbols and practices of those around him or her. And this means that the missionary must hold his or her own cultural assumptions and convictions about “right” forms and practices with a very loose grip. But, if carried out with humility and wisdom, the result will be, by the grace of God, communities of disciples who “own” the meanings of their symbols and practices because they have done the hard work of negotiating and contesting in light of their encounter with the living God.

In my next post I will address the ever-present concern about the “threat” of syncretism in contextualization.


[1] Stanley J. Grenz, and John R. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 135.

[2] Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 112-3.

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3 comments

  1. Remember- “synchretism happens”. 🙂


  2. love your writing and thanks for part 2, ……….now I can read part 1 with some understanding!


  3. Hey Logan:That’s a tremendous apacrpoh and I pray that your partnerships will be a blessing to New Morning. God is Emmanuel! He will continue to go with you as we trust in His promises. This is His ministry not our own. That’s our thought for the coming year. dave



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