Gospel & Culture blog
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?
The village catechist, Norm, had spent the last four years walking twenty miles, (and crossing four language boundaries along the way) to receive training at a biblically-grounded theological institute. After ordination, he returned to reach his village for Christ. When Norm puts on the stole, he is mindful of apostolic succession down through the centuries. When he holds up the silver chalice, he thinks of the church of God universal. As he labors at producing a vernacular Bible translation, he identifies himself with Wycliffe, Tyndale and Luther. However, his new congregation is largely unfamiliar with this legacy. Their experience of Christianity is their cousin or uncle Norman, holding a clear plastic cup of wine, and reciting portions of “God’s Talk” in their own language. To them, and many in remote village churches, Christianity is about the here and now, not a world religion with a two-thousand-year legacy.
Has the Christian identity of such villagers been short-changed or watered down because of this? Should missionaries endeavor to transmit some of the rich legacy of Christendom along with the gospel, if that is even possible? Many missiologists would argue that we’re called to make disciples, not to transmit a cultural legacy, no matter how rich it may be. In fact, it is precisely because of their isolation that these rural villages and islands have a unique opportunity for contextual theology. True, they are not inheriting the rich past of Christendom, but neither are they inheriting the schismatic or more sordid parts of Christian history. Their corporate memory of the church has neither cathedrals nor crusades; neither Cartesian philosophy nor colonial domination; neither creeds nor Christological controversies. Their church is not set in the context of 1300 years of tensions between Islam and Christianity nor in the more recent debate over church and state. Instead, the church is embodied by people like Norm, by the book he’s translating, by the songs he has taught them, and by the God to whom he is trying to win their allegiance.
Despite (justified) criticisms that nineteenth and early twentieth century missionaries were not contextual enough in their missiology, many communities took this gospel, as foreign as it was, and interpreted it as uniquely their own. They went around naming their rivers the Jordan and their lakes Galilee; villages were called Nazareth and Samaria; high points must have been where the ark landed; certain stone formations were identified with the stone Moses struck in the desert, or where David fought Goliath. This makes evangelicals leery because of historical inaccuracy; but it’s also a sign that the villagers see the Bible as God’s message for their own time and place- not something from 10,000 miles and two millennia away.
There may be something lost, if members of the small Anglican congregation see Norm more as “cousin” or “brother” than as “apostolic successor” or “ordained priest.” Are they missing out on something because they have not worked out a theology of the Eucharist? I think they’ll work out these things in their own time. For now, their “clean slate” acceptance of Norm’s church plant is evident of the miracle of indigenous church growth. In Norm and his bamboo-and-thatch church we see a picture of a self-multiplying, self-funding, and self-governing church.
But what most concerns me about indigenous churches that have not had their own Reformation is that they may lack the mind-boggling paradigm shift that salvation is a free gift. It seems that the notion that you must earn salvation is "common sense" all over the world, and it takes churches centuries sometimes (in the West, it took 1500 years) to learn the lesson that it is impossible to please God with good works. Salvation is free. That's why we all need a Reformation.
Norman’s village has a way to go before it’s a strong church community. There were only four men and two women in the service the day I visited. There is only one elder in the church. They are only beginning to understand what it means to be a disciple. And they have their own controversies to solve and theological problems to sort out. Their church may not have inherited America’s bitter disagreements about traditional or contemporary music; but they are trying to decide on such issues as whether elders can drink kava, or whether Christians can use the services of a clairvoyant.
We can be sure that the solutions they come up with will be a relevant Christianity for them. As they join in globalization, they may not share the past two millennia of Christendom with us, but their future will involve going beyond their islands, joining in complicated global debates, and benefiting from the worldwide Church of Christ.
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.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor