Archive for the ‘contextualism’ Tag

Cultural Dance   16 comments

My discussion of Christmas got me thinking about how Christianity works itself out in a cultural context.

Contextualization is sometimes a controversial topic, but it remains a critical component in communicating the gospel effectively. The New Testament and the history of Christian missions display the need for healthy contextualization.

Contextualization involves an attempt to present the Gospel in a culturally relevant way. For this reason, any discussions about contextualization are connected to discussions about the nature of human culture.

Culture is the common ideas, feelings and values that guide community and personal behavior, that organize and regulate what a group thinks, feels and does about God, the world and humanity. It explains why the Sawi people of Irian Jaya regard betrayal as a virtue, which Americans see it as a vice. …The closest New Testament approximately to culture is kosmos (world), but only when it refers to language-bound, organized human life (I Corinthians 14:10) or the sin-contaminated system of values, traditions, and social structures of which we are a part (John 17:11) – The Evangelical Dictionary of Missions

There is nothing inherently evil about culture. Like most human inventions, it is a composite of good and evil values, customs, beliefs, creations, vocations, and behaviors that characterize a particular people in a particular place. Some cultures are more brutal than others, but might still have redeeming qualities while other cultures are more praiseworthy except for where they are not.

Unfortunately, not all evangelicals understand culture in this manner. Some evangelicals mistakenly believe that Scripture’s warnings against the world, the kosmos, are warnings against culture itself. This isn’t true. All people are fashioned in the image of God and are recipients of common grace. This means that we should expect to find some positive features present in every culture, even non-Christian cultures. At the same time, every person has sinned, and we should expect to find some negative features present in every culture. Instead of shunning culture completely, we should instead engage culture with care and discernment. We should also hit pause for a moment and realize that evangelical American Christians live within the context of their own culture that is also a human-defined construct.

We cannot avoid discussions about culture because all people live in a culture of some sort. There is no neutral position. None of us stand in a cultural vacuum where we can make objective pronouncements on the cultures of others. All people, whether they realize it or not, are shaped by the culture in which they live.

I had a recent discussion with someone on social media about culture. His contention was that we should reject our culture and stand outside of it. He defined culture along the lines of bacteria. I think this fellow does not understand that his rejection of the concept of a culture is itself an influence from his culture. For about 40 years, since the Hippy era, Americans have been told that our culture is banal and worthless and that we will find much more significance in the cultures of other countries. That is a message born in American culture and is therefore a cultural message. Culture shapes everything we do and believe, often without our direct knowledge.

Culture even shapes a person’s reception of the Christian faith. Andrew Walls has written well on this issue:

No one ever meets universal Christianity in itself: we only ever meet Christianity in a local form and that means a historically, culturally conditioned form. We need not fear this; when God became man he became historically, cultural conditioned man in a particular time and place. What he became, we need not fear to be. There is nothing wrong in having local forms of Christianity–provided that we remember that they are local.

Walls does not suggest that the Christian Gospel is merely the product of a particular culture or that it is only “true” in particular cultures. The teachings of Christianity remain objectively true in all times and in all places. Walls merely argues that we receive the truths of Christianity wrapped in the baggage of a particular cultural context. We humans are not eternal, timeless and a-cultural. Some of the ways we worship, how we present eternal truths, and how we live in and relate to society must be considered because we live in a culture.

A failure to understand this point can actually lead to a form of cultural arrogance where a person might begin to believe that his culture’s way of practicing Christianity is the only way to practice Christianity. This attitude would be unhelpful to the gospel because it tries to force a distant culture onto potential converts as if it were the gospel.

The process of contextualization takes these facts about culture into account by presenting the unchanging truths of the gospel within the unique and changing contexts of cultures and worldviews.

Contextualization works as a tool to enable an understanding of what it means that Jesus Christ is authentically experienced in each and every human situation. While the human condition and the gospel remain the same, people have different worldviews which in turn impact how they interpret themselves and the world.

Scripture supports for this concept of contextualization. Jesus lived His earthly life in Palestine as a first-century Jew. He entered the culture of His day and “was so thoroughly a part of His culture that, when being betrayed by Judas, He had to be identified by a kiss. His captors could not tell Him from other Jewish males hanging around in the first century gardens. Jesus’ ministry operated within a specific cultural context.

Paul’s ministry also reveals the need for contextualization. Paul intentionally addressed his Jewish listeners one way but addressed pagan philosophers differently. When he addressed Jews, Paul began with Scripture. When he addressed Gentiles, he began with general revelation. The focus of Paul’s sermons remained the same—the Gospel, but he shifted his presentation of the Gospel to fit the worldviews of his listeners.

Contextualization is simply about sharing the Gospel well. Those who deliberately practice the process of contextualization desire to share the Gospel in ways that is most relevant to the culture they are addressing.

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