Gospel & Culture blog
What is so attractive about animism? As a guest on Dr. Darrell Bock's podcast, I discussed the challenges that animism poses to the church
By Kenneth Nehrbass
By Kenneth Nehrbass
My work as a translation consultant brought me to a rural village in Vanuatu. The Anglican congregation meets under a structure of bamboo and thatch, with barbed wire strung along the posts to keep pigs and cows out. The priest wears a robe, stole and cross necklace. It is evident that his faith is sincere and that he’s connecting with God. As he lifts up the silver chalice and recites the liturgy, it occurs to me: This pacific island congregation is symbolically linked with Anglican congregations around the world by observing the mass the same way it is done all over the world; but are the people in this simple village church aware of the centuries of debate about the nature of the elements in the Eucharist? They identify with the name ‘Anglican’ but are they partakers of the long-standing tension between Roman Catholicism and the Protestantism? When they sing ‘And Can it Be’ in pidgin English, are they nostalgic about with massive pipe organs in places like Westminster Abbey; and what else do they know of Charles Wesley’s legacy? Is Christianity, for them, a legacy of two thousand years’ of pondering paradoxes like predestination and freewill, or salvation by works or faith? What is the value, for them, of Luther’s 95 theses? Of five point Calvinism? Or of the Wesleyan quadrilateral?
At the American Society of Missiology, Terry Muck made the argument that the story of the Good Samaritan can be read (faithfully) from the hermeneutic of interreligious dialog: Here we have a story of people from different faiths (albeit faiths of shared origin) showing compassion, regardless of - yes, regardless of ethnicity- but also regardless of religion. The powerpoint featured global images of the good Samaritan from this blog. Most moving to me was the image of a black person, perhaps in South Africa, healing a white man, as other privileged whites passed him on the road.
I suppose that the story can be accurately read from an interreligious perspective, since the question put to Jesus was "who is my neighbor?" And our neighbors come from all religious backgrounds. And we have faithfully loved our neighbor when we show compassion. But we have also faithfully loved him or her when we share the unique blessings found in Jesus Christ.
The gospel is eternally true, and is for all cultures, right? Yes, but missiologists have discovered that it's a bit more complicated than that. Truth doesn't change, but its significance to you or me will be different that to folks in a different context. Just as the value of pi doesn't change, its significance to a mathematician is different that its significance to a child. In the same way, the significance that Christians find in the good news of the Kingdom of God has varied a bit both geographically and across time.
For example, in the 1950's Billy Graham and Bill Bright (of Campus Crusade) could hold massive events explaining the way to heaven. The truth has not changed, but it is hard to fill a stadium in the USA these days with people who are looking for a way to heaven. In the USA these days, Christians emphasize more how a relationship with God can improve your marriage, give you purpose in life, or lead to happiness.
What significance have other cultures found in the good news? The hope we have in the death and resurrection of Christ is fairly universal for Christians- but there are certain central questions, based on context, that also come in to focus. In Latin America for the past four decades, the role of the gospel in bringing economic and social justice has been a central theological issue. Worldwide, Christians know that living out the gospel means loving neighbor- but Latin American Christian communities have made this a central focus of the gospel. This has also been a focus among Black American theologians, and theologians in south Africa.
In other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, though, the social aspect of the good news has not been focal. Central theological questions have been about the morality of ancestor veneration, how to defeat dark spiritual powers, and how to achieve healing. The good news of Jesus, in this context, is his supremacy over the powers of Satan.
Dyrness (1990) points out that if Latin American theology has emphasized the this-worldly focus of the good news, Asian theology has typically focused on the other-worldly aspect, or has remained fairly philosophical: How is Jesus the ultimate meaning of the universe? Asian Christian theology also emphasizes the way Jesus takes away the shame of our collective sin against God, and has focused a bit less on our personal guilt.
It would be no surprise that Arab Christians must think through the role of Israel- a question that all Christians may be mindful of, but which is a daily felt-reality in the Middle East.
By taking in the global picture of how Christians contextualize the gospel, we can find even deeper significance of the good news. For further reading on the contribution of global theologies:
Anderson, G. and Stransky, T. (1974). Missions Trends 3: Third World Theologies.
Dyrness, W. (1990). Learning about theology from the Third World. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Tennent, T. (2007) Theology in the context of world Christianity: How the global church is influencing the way we think about and discuss theology. Zondervan.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor