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
to obey God.
The subtitle “critical contextualization in Melanesia and beyond” refers to the essays in the last part, which focus on other regions such as India, Japan, the Cook Islands and New Zealand. These essays also reconsider missiological traditions of contextualization, syncretism and inculturation. For example, Taylor makes a fascinating parallel between James Cameron’s movie “Avatar” and the missiological thesis that “if you look like them, if you talk like them, they’ll trust you” (329). Taylor convincingly argues that Paul’s strategy of “all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:19-23) was not one of oscillating between mimicking the behaviors of Greeks and Jews, which would have “alienated more than it attracted” (337); but was about shifting his rhetorical style for his audience. In fact, Taylor explains, if missionaries pretend that they are just like their Muslim neighbors, yet inwardly seek to convert them, their duplicity will lead to failure. Instead, Taylor suggests that missionaries should adopt the identity of “inbetweeners” (342).
This book brings the field of contextualization into the 21stcentury by emphasizing the public nature of missiology. Witness is not just about personal evangelism, but involves considering the ways that Christianity has challenged, at a national level, the identities and politics of adherents of Islam, Hinduism and traditional religions. For instance, Mani problematizes the wantoksystem (tribalism) and suggests that Christianity, as a global religion, has on the one hand thwarted the wantoksystem through its use of pidgin and the introduction of denominational loyalties. Yet on the other hand, the church can reimagine the wantok system by identifying Christ - and indeed all humans – as our wantoks, since we all bear the image of God.
This is an excellent scholarly contribution to the field of contextualization; and could even extend its influence if an edition is eventually published in Tok Pisin.
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor