Gospel & Culture blog
Numerous missiological texts have stressed the importance of “local theologies,” or have outlined models for contextualization; but far fewer works have supplied rich data on actual contextual theologies. Living in the family of Jesuscontains a collection of erudite essays on local Christianities, written by Melanesian scholars and Westerners who have lived in Melanesia.
Just as Jesus told the apostles it was their job to give the crowd something to eat (John 9:13), Longgar suggests that the Spirit is asking Melanesian theologians to supply meaty scriptural teaching that addresses the needs of their own people (46), since a borrowed theology dethrones God by making God irrelevant (39). For a theology to be indigenous in Melanesia, it must address issues related to ancestors, the natural environment, land (34), and reciprocity (51); as well as fears of sorcery, barrenness, or failure (52).
Shaw’s and Bustos’ essays both suggest that the loss of contextualized rituals has made God feel distant to Melanesians. Reimagining indigenous funerary and puberty rites can reinforce the sense that God is present in the hours of deepest need. Mombi’s essay makes a comparison of tribal ritual and cleanliness rituals in the Bible; but it is not clear whether he is making the comparison to suggest compatibility between the two ritual systems, or perhaps he envisions a Christian fulfillment or replacement of those rituals. Regardless, Mombi’s thesis is innovative: Melanesians should engage cleanliness rituals not as a means for guaranteeing success (as traditional religion would suggest) but as fundamentally about drawing closer to God (99).
A few of the essays lean heavily on biblical exegesis. Charlesworth’s analysis of the Sermon on the Mount subverts Melanesian ideas of shame and honor: Jesus violated cultural expectations, suggesting that the ultimate goal is not just to show respect and honor, but
By Kenneth Nehrbass
Even though we call the Nov. 11 celebration of our military forces "Veteran's Day," a veteran literally just means "old timer"-- someone who is experienced at something. You can be a veteran farmer or a veteran computer programmer. And while we are continually adding holidays throughout the year to celebrate all sorts of important occupations, many of us hold "Veteran's Day" in higher esteem than the rest. Those who serve in the military sacrifice the opportunity to earn higher salaries elsewhere, their ability to live near family, the comforts of home, many of their freedoms, and sometimes their lives, to protect our nation.
In 2023, my son Private First Class Caleb Nehrbass will finish his first term in the US Army as a Blackhawk helicopter maintainer and will join the distinguished list of "old timer" veterans. This is an honor he will carry the rest of his life, like both of his grandfathers and all four of his great-grandfathers.
One way people describe their appreciation of veterans is by pointing out they "defend our way of life." It's true that many careers MAINTAIN our way of life. Farmers maintain our world class level of abundant food production; the press maintains our unprecedented freedoms of speech; pastors maintain our tremendous freedoms of religious speech; entrepreneurs maintain our nation's reputation of ingenuity and upward mobility. But over the past century, dictators, unjust governments and religious sects have arisen that would like to remove these freedoms from our (and our allies') farmers, press, pastors, and entrepreneurs. The veterans have made sacrifices to make sure that doesn't happen.
A year ago, my wife Mendy and I sat in the stands with the parents of a thousand other soldiers who graduated from boot camp at Fort Jackson, SC. Canons blasted smoke across the airfield, and the soldiers appeared through the thick of the smoke, marching in formation to the Army theme song. The young men and women stood before us and took an oath to "defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." Often, our soldiers are sent to protect not only strangers, but strangers on
By Ken Nehrbass
This year's theme of the Evangelical Missiological Society was "missions and evangelism in a secular age." There were many discouraging trends about the "nones"- millennials who no longer see themselves as religious. Much of the discussion centered on how we can help make the church more palatable to secular folks. A palatable church would be a compassionate one (Eph 4:32), one that creates space for disagreement and questioning of the faith, one that is not judgmental (Matt 7:1). This doesn't mean watering down the message, or selling out to the world, it just means sending a message of love in a way that the world can understand.
Yet the more I thought about my own experience with missions and evangelism in a secular age, I began to think through the men and women I know who have moved from "nones" (non religious) to faith in Christ in the past ten years. As I recalled the faith journeys of these new members of the family of Christ, I realized that each of them converted because 1) they were in a crisis in their lives, and 2) a Christian explained that the Bible is trustworthy, that God demands repentance, and that following Jesus is the only way to peace and purpose.
In other words, it was the testimony of believers, and the power of God's word, that brought these people from secular to saved. Just like in the gospels and the book of Acts-- Jesus and the other preachers told people "repent and believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31). Reaching a "none" is just like reaching people from the first century Palestine, and like reaching people from every other century: the Word of God, the testimony of believers, and the timing of the Holy Spirit in a person's life are the keys to evangelism.
By Kenneth Nehrbass
As a professor of intercultural studies, I read students' reflections about culture throughout each semester. Often, my students from the US describe American culture as "patriotic" and even assume that patriotism is not only strong in the USA, but a distinct characteristic of Americans.
My hunch, from traveling the world, and from teaching international students, is that most- virtually all- national cultures foster a sense of patriotism. I wondered how unique US patriotism is.
Luckily, we don't have to rely on hunches. In 2014, Gallup did a poll of 62,000 people in 64 countries to measure levels of patriotism. They narrowly defined patriotism as "willingness to die for your country" which is, of course, a disputable definition. But it may give a window into other patriotic sentiments.
It turns out that the USA was near the bottom, at only 44% willing to die for their country. Below the USA were "Germany, Netherlands, and Japan at 18%, 15% and 11% respectively". What were the most patriotic countries? Morocco and Fiji were tied in number one, with 94% willing to die for their country. Pakistan, Vietnam and Bangladesh were next.
In preparation for Pope Francis' historic visit to Ireland, one group converted a car wash into a drive- through confessional. While many Irish seem to understand the temporary confessional as a form of pop-up art, drivers have lined up to get a glimpse inside, and maybe even to silently confess their sins while driving through.
On NPR's "The World" the creator of the exhibit said he was just trying to help Irish people be self-critical about their own hypocrisy-- Irish are far less religiously committed than they used to be, but are still enthusiastic about the pope's visit: There is truth in the sarcasm of the "modern day confessional:" Why do we feel like we need to clean ourselves up when a religious leader visits, when it is more important to clean ourselves up for our own sake? We should repent from our sin because it's wrong, and because it breaks our relationship with God (1 John 1:5)-- not just to impress the pope or anyone around us.
The fact that the drive-through confessional is actually a car wash actually contains some unintended metaphors: All that cleansing and washing away of filth, for instance. And consider that our cars are emblematic of our contemporary sinful attitudes, such as
By Ken Nehrbass
This is a series of blogs on the theology of culture, which really can be seen as a "theology of everything" if culture is everything we think, have and do as members of a society. In this post, I introduce ideas that are central to a theology of government. This field is also called "public theology" or a "theology of the public square." As with other aspects of the "theology of culture," I am looking at God's intended purpose, structure and authority for government.
God's intended purpose for government
Some pacifists argue that government was not present in Eden- only after the Fall. They see government as a necessary evil for this present time, rather than as something innate to God's nature. Others, such as Skillen, argue that government, like other aspects of culture (family, language, communication) is rooted in the image of God: God is orderly, authoritative, even coercive, and that even in a perfect kingdom on earth, as people "filled the earth and subdued it" they would have necessarily developed complex societies with creative and diverse forms of government-- all which led to flourishing.
"Citizenship in earthly political communities is thus as much a part of the revelation of God and of our identity as God’s image bearer as are marriage family, friendship, discipleship and shepherding.” (Skillen, p. 37)
The Fall, of course, has resulted in our continual corruption of all forms of government, as we turn power and freedom -even justice - into idols, and we use "order" as an ends that justifies
By Kenneth Nehrbass
"Identity" "Identity politics" and "cultural identity" are hot topics now. Anyone involved in intercultural studies who wants to study "identity" must be clear if they are talking about identity the way ethnographers mean it (avowals and attestations of a particular ethnolinguistic group), and identity the way sociologists mean it (the relationship between identity and racial awareness). Authors are not always clear which perspective they come from when they say "identity", so you would have to deduce their meaning of identity as you read through their work. The following gives you clues for how to deduce that meaning.
All over the world, people seem to reify their behaviors as cultural facts. For example, I have heard Aussies avow their cultural identity in terms of informality ("We are so informal that we don't even call our physician 'doctor') and collectivism ("Don't be too puffed up: When a poppy stands out from the others, we clip it"). Or my East Asian students occasionally avow their Confucian penchant for self-improvement through education. So it is not just outsiders who attest to cultural stereotypes (perhaps to freeze the cultural expressions of the Other as backwards, or inferior); but cultural insiders also embrace, or freeze these cultural expressions when it is advantageous to them. The identification of these cultural differences has been a preoccupation of intercultural studies since Edward Hall popularized the field through the Foreign Service Institute. Fredrick Barth concluded that a description of individual cultures would turn toward "trait inventories" (p. 12) "overt signals or signs...that people look for and exhibit to show identity...such as dress, language, house-form" and
by Ken Nehrbass
This is a series of blogs on the theology of culture, which really can be seen as a "theology of everything" if culture is everything we think, have and do as members of a society. n this post, I introduce ideas that are central to a theology of education. As with other aspects of the "theology of culture," I am looking at God's intended purpose, structure and authority for government
The purpose of education as a cultural system
The cultures of the world have competing ideas about the purpose of education: in the USA education is increasingly about career advancement rather than to make people well-rounded thinkers or to encourage personal enrichment. The seeing in emphasis from liberal arts to STEM is a result of the trend to align higher education with career, rather than knowledge. Other cultures emphasize that education is about socialization, guaranteeing social welfare (a populace needs to be literate to ensure the growth of GDP), or simply about making good citizens. All of these are legitimate purposes of education, as long as none becomes an idol. In early missionary work around the world, education was primarily about teaching people to read so they could know scripture and discern Christian worldview but also focused on increasing the economic lives of those in poorer parts of the world.
Like all cultural systems, the ultimate purpose of education is for humankind to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Kuyper argued that education has been God’s plan along- building on the knowledge of previous ancestors. There was no way for one generation to fulfil the command to fill the earth and subdue it, so education is necessary for us to transmit the accumulation of knowledge as we make something great of the world God created.
Scripture balances the tendency to make education an idol, on the one hand, with ignorance or foolishness on the other:
•He who increases knowledge increases sorrow –Ecc1:18
•For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. As it is written: "He catches the wise in their craftiness” (1 Cor3:19) quoting Job 5:13
The structure of education as a cultural system
Education is neither entirely the task of the parents, nor entirely the task of the state. Some may be reluctant to allow state involvement at all with the education of a Christian community. Yet an education that is wholly separate from the state will not be able to achieve all the purposes that God plans for education. A fully functioning educational system would lead to cures for cancer, mapping the human genome, designing better bridges, interpreting history in ways that dignify diverse peoples. Many of these advancements are possible because of state involvement.
Others might argue that the private enterprise should take on the task of education-- let the free market determine which majors are valuable enough to offer at the university. Let people pay for education what it is worth. But in reality, virtually no government wholly accepts this notion-- the state must get involved to ensure that those who do not have money can still become literate and even upwardly mobile.
The authority for education as a cultural system
The authority for education is firstly located within the family, as parents "train up their children" (Prov 22:6). But as I mentioned above, the authority for education must also be located within the state, which has resources for research-one institutions that can train up specialists like aerospace engineers and epidemiologists. Only the state - not the family- can ensure system-wide literacy and vocational training.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor