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
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 Ken Nehrbass
We know that the gospel is not like a plant to be transplanted, but more like a seed to be sown so it will grow on its own in soils all over the world. But how do we know what that "seed" is? Judiasm didn't have this difficulty of separating the "essentials" from the "translatables," because Judaism sought to maintain a cultural, geographic, and linguistic homogeneity wherever it was practiced.. Islam also tries to remain homogenous by translating Arabic and its umma. But Christianity tries to be limitless in cultural translatability. What parts of Christianity are essentials in each culture?
The answer to that question is not black and white. The answers fall on a continuum. On the left side of the spectrum, Karl Barth argued that only Jesus Christ was the "word" and no human language could encapsulate that word. On the right end of the spectrum, Carl F Henry and John MacArthur argue that the "plain meaning of the text" is not blurred by culture, and can be directly expressed and understood in any context. Most missiologists fall in the middle of this continuum-- there are some "plain meanings" that are transcultural, whereas other aspects of the Christian faith are shaped by the cultural context. But how do we know what falls in each of these two categories?
The church has typically answered this question through cross-cultural councils where they worked out creeds, like the Apostle's Creed or the Nicene Creed. Going back in Christian history, the affirmation that "Jesus is Lord" was a simple, non-negotiable tenet across cultures. We could look at the sermons in the book of Acts to see what Paul considered to be the "kernel" of the Christian faith. More recently, the Lausanne Covenant and Chicago declaration, which solidified a global consensus on the essentials of the Christian faith.
Why should the global church collaborate to work out the "kernel" of the gospel? Why not just stick to the wisdom of the early church fathers or to Western theologians? The reason working out this kernel must be a global project is that we are all myopic, and cannot see the full implications of the gospel. Westerners long focused on the judicial aspect of the atonement, and paid less attention to the power that Christ gives over the demonic. Pacific Island Christians often focus on the healing and wellness that Christ brings, but may
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