Context [Part 2]: Between Mindlessess and Recklessness.

This Series on Contextualization:
[Part 1]: Does it Matter?
[Part 2]: Between Mindlessness and Recklessness
[Part 3]: Between Absolutism and Relativism

Phil Johnson puts forward a good response to my response. I had not previously read his thoughts on the subject of "contextualization" but I can now see that he has a few good points to make and is not naive about the subject at all. Sorry if my post did not do justice to Phil's argument.

Ev Zoolander messed up
Sorry if I was acting all messed up towards you.

"Phil Johnson’s current post on contextualization . . . should be read to get a clear picture of what Johnson and his supporters hear when they hear "context." Summary: the worst aspects of culture embraced at the most cost to the clarity of the gospel. Is that what missiologists and missional pastors mean by contextualization?" Read more from Phil on Context here.

What I hear Phil saying is that the word "contextualization" is suspect of being a cover for cultural accommodation and ethical compromise and we should consider losing it from our vocabulary.

Zoolander Face
Well, I guess I would have to answer your question with another question. If we dump the word "contextualization" what word do you suggest take its place? Catholics have called it "inculturation". Protestants have preferred "contextualization". The word "syncretism" fell out of favor a long time ago and is now shorthand for a compromising accommodation to the local culture. And will doing away with another word stop the abuse? Probably not.

Here are some initial responses to Phil's last post Coffee Klatch and some thoughts on why the subject is relevant to me.

AGREE:
– Yes, Phil, there is a connection between cultural contextualization and Biblical contextualization. I am not a Bible translator but friends who are tell me that contextualization is an important step in allowing the Scriptures to speak to each culture with clarity. Otherwise the Old Testament in English would tell us to love God with all our liver, rather than our heart.

– We do get very attached to the word "contextualization" and perhaps we have developed blind spots or an unwillingness to discuss its relevance or its pitfalls. Its a bit like when some people say that "penal substitution" is only one of the atonement theories and may not always be the best or first one to bring out. Fundamentalists hear that as an attack from people who have abandoned the idea or atonement theories altogether which may not the case at all. They just mean that if they were in a different context, ie, a shame-based non-litigational culture like Papua New Guinea, other atonement theories might create understanding faster and simpler and without introducing the home culture to show why it is relevant.

– There is nothing inherently in the word "contextualization" that points to boundaries and no go zones so I can understand Phil's fear that this word becomes a license for recklessness. And it already has on some occasions.. The negative examples we often point to are from the Jesuit missionaries and their attempt to syncretize local gods with saints but there are also plenty of emerging church experiments gone wrong. BUT the fullness of the gospel is also compromised by the lack of connection to context. And can be replaced by the traditions of men.
There is a danger in both
1. recklessless in cultural innovation and
2. mindlessness in understanding or underestimating both our cultural trappings on the gospel and their understanding of it.

DISAGREE:
– Highlighting the spiritual abuse of the Native Americans by the missionaries is only "historical revisionism" if I have not stated history correctly. If I have been misinformed, please let me know since this topic is of great importance to me and others seeking to carry out post-colonial mission overseas without falling into the traps of those who came before us.
– In Lystra, and in other places including Athens, I believe Paul tried to be contextually relevant AND counter-cultural. He was grieved at the idolatry and exposed their misconceptions of God but he also chose to communicate in a way that would create understanding. Both are possible.

MY DILEMMA:

Today is Friday. As I write this, a team of 15 young people are traveling 700 miles to come here for a weekend of mission and retreat. I don't know how much training they have had in cross-cultural sensitivity but I do hope they bless the work up here rather than damage it. They will be leading worship in a Baptist church, attending a charismatic prayer event, working alongside social enterprise volunteers and meeting our neighbors. They will have to learn to decrease so that others can increase, to be come under the cross and know experientially the crucified life.

I hope there are no Yosemite Sam's in the group, guns loaded and out to rebuke the locals for behavior unbecoming to someone from their home town, looking to start a truth war with local Christians who don't agree with them. I don't care if they have never even heard the word "contextualization" or not. What's important to me is that the attitude that was in Christ that caused him to lay aside his glory and come to earth to dwell with humans will characterize their ministry over the weekend. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.

Can you imagine Yosemite Sam going on a short term mission to Turkey, where the witness and the lives of people are at stake?

Anyway, its a discussion that I am sure will continue and I think Phil and I are closer than it seems. He is coming with pastor/teacher concerns for purity and I am coming with the mission challenges to make the gospel clear in another context. Somewhere in the tension between mindlessness and recklessness is a healthy balance.

Related:

– C. Michael Patton has once again created a chart so we can all understand clearly this thing called contextualization.
– John MacArthur's "Nothing Must Change" Tour is just an April Fools joke by a crazy Mennonite so don't book your tickets just yet.
– Rhett Smith, home from a recent missions experience in Mexico, discusses the embarrassment of a non-contextualized blond Jesus.

Jesus-1

Andrew

Andrew Jones has been blogging since 1997. He is based in San Francisco with his two daughters but also travels the globe to find compelling stories of early stage entrepreneurs changing their world. Sometimes he talks in the third person. Sometimes he even talks to himself and has been heard uttering the name “Precious” :-)

20 Comments

  • “What’s important to me is that the attitude that was in Christ that caused him to lay aside his glory and come to earth to dwell with humans will characterize their ministry…”
    That’s it, right there. You said it, brother.

  • Andrew: Did you think I was too stupid to know what a eugoogooly was?
    Seriously, thanks for this post.
    I have a wedding to perform in Palm Springs today and an ordination council in Fresno tomorrow (and those are at least 2 hours each in opposite directions from where I am now), so I can’t respond in great detail.
    But let me try to sum up my central point by referring to your closing point:
    Rhett Smith’s blogpost perfectly epitomizes the sort of backward thinking that I’m most concerned about. Blond-eyed, blue-eyed images of Jesus in Mexico are not signals that someone has insufficiently contextualized the message, but precisely the opposite. The blue-eyed surfer Jesus is a product of contextualizing the message too much for Amercan culture. Jesus was middle-eastern, not Californian or Swedish.
    And the solution for an over-contextualized Hollywood Jesus in Mexico is not now to invent a Jesus dressed in a Mariachi costume, along with a black Jesus for the Africans, and an Asian Jesus for Asians, a cockney Jesus for East Londoners, and a punk Jesus for Seattle.
    See, here’s my central point, which I have reiterated over and over: The one context that should concern us most is biblical context. But biblical context is often utterly ignored by the very people who throw the term contextualization around most liberally. They seem to use the term to mask a narcissistic obsession with their own culture. And the blue-eyed Jesuses of Mexico are a symptom of that, not a red-flag suggesting we somehow need a more culturally contextualized Jesus.

  • TSK – I’ve just looked over both sides of this conversation. You’re both making a lot of sense. In the way you and Phil have framed your positions, I don’t see this as an “either/or” dialog. I find a lot to agree with both of you.
    Phil is right, the gospel is universal; it can transcend culture. The Gen2 story of unity being tempted into duality… a divine-human reconciliation back to Jn17 unity. Grand proto-cultural metaphors. Unity / division / re-unity. Flesh / blood.
    Andrew is right. Historically, cultures-at-large have collectively (and improperly) assumed a Kingdom mandate. In hindsight, we wonder how such tribes could have been so blind to their own arrogance and hubris. Yet we fail to see the depths of our own social creations embedded deeply into the fabric of religious belief.
    Great conversation, both of you.

  • “Jesus was middle-eastern, not Californian or Swedish.”
    Yep. But Jesus was (portrayed as) a blue-eyed, long-haired, good looking European long before the emerging church/postmodernism began.
    I really think with all this stuff is a failure, on all sides, to see the good and the bad in all forms of church. I hope we understand that we are to contextualize the message to an extent. Even Acts 2, with the disciples all of the sudden speaking in languages that the people around them can understand, is contextualization. The myriad Bible translations that we have are another example.
    “But biblical context is often utterly ignored by the very people who throw the term contextualization around most liberally.”
    I see the exact opposite situation, where Christians who are interested in culture go to great lengths to make sure that people know the Biblical Jesus, not the one that many traditional churches have portrayed. In fact, that is where a lot of this comes from. This includes a Jesus only concerned with moral fortitude, or a Jesus that loves dressing up for church, etc. We have contextualized the Gospel in so many ways in the American church that we many times don’t even notice it. So, a lot of the guys who are the whipping boys for more traditional church leaders started out trying to get back to the heart of the Gospel, and the real (as defined by Scripture) Jesus.
    For example, a loud, rocking worship service is more akin to some of the Israelite worship of God. Acapella worship is probably a more accurate representation of early church worship. The kind of worship that we’ve seen in mainstream American churches 50 years ago (piano, organ, song leader) was far removed from either of these very Biblical worship forms.
    So, who’s really contextualizing?

  • Phil: I remember being very moved years ago reading John Stott’s words, “We take culture seriously because Christ has taken our culture seriously.” It changed the way I thought about both Christ and our mission to the world. (May not be an exact quote, as I do not have access to my copy of Down To Earth: Studies in Christianity and Culture: The Papers of the Lausanne Consultation on Gospel and Culture, eds. John R.W. Stott and Robert Coote.)
    I commend to you the Lausanne Occasional Paper “The Willowbank Report on Gospel and Culture” available at http://www.lausanne.org/willowbank-1978/willowbank-1978.html. Stott elsewhere summarizes the report: “Cross-cultural messengers of the gospel have to ask themselves: ‘How can I, having been born and raised in one culture, take the gospel from Scripture which was written in other cultures, and communicate it to people in a third culture, without either distorting the message or rendering it unintelligible?’ To help us to answer this question, the report contains both a moving analysis of missionary humility and a reflection on the Incarnation as a model of Christian witness.”
    -Stott, John, ed. Making Christ Known: Historic Mission Documents from the Lausanne Movement, 1974-1989, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1997. (page xvii)
    To me, our concern for culture flows from exactly those two sources: “missionary humility” and “a reflection on the Incarnation as a model of Christian witness.”
    Phil, I agree with you that “The one context that should concern us most is biblical context” — although I wouldn’t have added the word “one,” because I think you then fall into an “either/or” when a “both/and” would be more biblically balanced, since the biblical context comes to us out of God’s concern for our human context.
    And even if we agree that “biblical context is often utterly ignored by the very people who throw the term contextualization around most liberally” — it would be a non sequitur to say that we are then free to ignore the human context in which the biblical context must be communicated.
    I would respectfully suggest that there is a world of difference between what you term “a narcissistic obsession with their own culture” and a missiological/evangelistic obsession with their own (or someone else’s) culture.” I believe that is what Paul meant when he said that “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” . . . i.e., “to win as many as possible” (1 Corinthians 9:22,19).

  • Besides the whole Athens/quoting Greek writers thing, I have hard time seeing Paul as not being extrememly contextual.
    In Acts 15 James and the elders tell the Gentile converts to stay away from food sacrificed to idols. Later on, Paul says not to worry about it execept in instances where it might offend another person’s conscience…a completely relativistic answer. These “disputable matters” are to be taken on a case by case basis, completely dependent on the way that individuals, and the culture they live in, respond to them.
    Paul was an “ends justify the means” kind of man so long as the ends were not in direct conflict with the gospel message..yet even then sometimes we see him make an unexpected move. He freaks out in Galatians about not compelling people to be circumcised, and then later makes Timothy get a circumcision.
    That Paul guy can be a little slippery! 🙂

  • Hi Phil
    you said: “Andrew: Did you think I was too stupid to know what a eugoogooly was?”
    absolutely not. i think you are super-intelligent. if i thought otherwise, i would have put a hypertext link to Zoolander but i figured it would be unnecessary.
    As for Jesus – I agree that surfers and others see Jesus within the limited realm of their own world and culture, as do the rest of us.
    The Jesus I read about as a kid was quite the English gentleman and the Jesus I preached when i was young was probably not quite right either. I would have used “biblical” to describe my preaching then but am more cautious now, knowing that even though i am older, i still project my values and ideas on my image of Christ and what I consider “biblical” might actually be my interpretation and not always the full reality.
    Unfortunately, many of us missions folk have a warped sense of who God is – we think he is a workaholic like us, infatuated with projects and great plans, anxious to finish his project on time. As if he is impressed with our goals and outcomes.
    We need others to complete our knowledge of Him. [and you] Only together with them will we be complete.
    Maybe every culture has a unique angle on the character of Jesus and only when every tribe and every tongue and every nation come together to worship the Lamb, will we have a full completed picture of the God who deserves our worship.
    Anyway, nice chatting. Hope the weekend goes well for you.

  • Andrew,
    I appreciate your response a ton. It is so refreshing to be on the watching end of a conversation where there is listening taking place. I appreciate you demonstrating that for all your readers, myself included, to see. Those “other guys” do have some good things to say.
    I know I struggle so much with wanting to be right and wanting to over-protect my side of the any argument, but I am slowly learning the value of a good listening ear.
    On a personal note, I enjoy the things you write. You don’t know me, but I know you. Ha, I bet you hear that a lot! I’m a Minnehaha / Glenwood product from the day I was born, so we’ve spent plenty of time in the same buildings. My most enduring memory was when I was probably in early high school and you came to be our retreat speaker, some time after you had left Vancouver and were living in SF, I believe. I was changed in my understanding of what it could look like to be a Christian who was actively sharing Jesus in an environment that was hurting and broken, by being a member of the community and sharing Jesus in a real and tangible way. That was a form of contextualization or interculturization (or whatever the PC term is about to become) that didn’t necessitate a watered down message, but that allowed the message to even be heard. Thanks.
    Also, I wish I was heading to Palm Springs this weekend. But I could pass on Fresno.

  • Paul himself says, “…to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law – though not being myself under the Law – that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it.” (1Corinthians 9:20-23)
    Certainly Paul ‘contextualized’ himself for the sake of the gospel. The question that needs to be asked is what is the gospel? What was he trying to save them from? What was he trying to win them to? Was it feeding the hungry and living a monastic lifestyle (or name your own good work) or was it the salvation of their souls by the forgiveness of sins through the blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ? It is not one’s mode of dress that turns people off to the true gospel, whether that be a coat and tie (still the main uniform of the world’s business class-like it or not) or crotch-at-the-knees shorts, pink hair and tatoos. It is the message of repentance and acknowledgement of our own sinfulness and complete inability to measure up to God’s standard that the world stumbles over. That has never changed and it never will. The question isn’t how will we tell them, but rather what will we tell?
    This is a fantastic conversation and I’ve really been enjoying it.
    Terri – it’s interesting that you mention the story of meat offered to idols. On my way home from school today I heard John MacArthur’s take on that exact story. It was really good and brought up things I had not thought about before.
    Ryan – you obviously have not found a good way to ‘contextualize’ Fresno and believe all the negative stereotypes, thus offending us Fresnans. Actually, it is currently seventy-five degrees, sunny with a light breeze, and though most of our pink and white blossoms have turned into green leaves, the view of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains is stunning. I hope Phil enjoys his stay.

  • My comment about the monastic lifestyle and feeding the hungry sounds offensive and I did not intend for it to. I believe good works are things that those of us who understand the greatness of our redemption and truly love the Lord automatically desire to do.

  • Melody – Sorry for perpetuating the Fresno stereotypes. I feel terrible about the damage I’ve done… But you have to admit that it isn’t exactly design to be a destination hot spot in the same way Palm Springs is. I’m sure it’s a great place. And maybe someday I’ll retrace my family roots, which run fairly deep in Fresno, and stay there for a night or two.

  • Great to hear from you Ryan. Those were good times at Glenwood Church.
    My wife and I honeymooned at Palm Springs and I spoke at the Baptist youth camp in Fresno.
    I prefer Palm Springs and would love to return to fully explore their famously modern architecture.
    I just LOVE Modernism. “Desert Modernism” rocks.

  • Ryan, Fresno can be a really, really hot spot during the summer. Thanks for the apology, though. We appreciate it.

  • T4G Day 2, Session 1

    We’re not the only show in town. Thought I came to the wrong conference from Canada. I debated which conference to attend. The machinery at the snow conference looked impressive, but I still like books better. This morning we sang….

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