In preparing this paper I have used Christianity and Culture by Charles Kraft and a few thoughts from Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? by Roland Allen, along with my own experiences as a missionary and observations as a student of Intercultural Studies.
This past summer my five days in that Muslim country were almost over and I had one more appointment my host had arranged for me. I was to meet someone at nine in the morning of the day I was flying on to India in the afternoon. My host—a former Muslim now a Christian—had carefully told me that this appointment was at the request of the guest himself and that he was “probably not the most important person for you to meet.” I was willing to meet him and listen. Often people who ask to meet me have a request for a scholarship or questions about how to get to the States to study! This time I had a surprise.
Rafique wears a beard as Moslems do along with their traditional attire. With him was a friend, a Sociology professor Mia, with similar mannerisms. Rafique works in health care and the professor teaches in a local college. They represent a highly indigenous and Muslim-sensitive group of "believers"—believers in Isa (Jesus) as the way to receive favor from Allah.
The reason they do not claim the name "Christian" is that doing so would remove them from the circle of family and friends they want to reach with their faith.
As I listened to Rafique I noted that these men were sensitive to their cultural context just as I advocate in Contextualized Theology and Evangelism in Context classes in the seminary at ORU. They pray with their hands open and slightly lifted—just like they were taught to pray to Allah. They call Jesus the "Holy One" instead of using the offensive term "Son of God." They don't refer to the trinity though they believe in each member of the trinity themselves. They don't use the word "church" and they don't use a cross. They meet and pray in homes and in every way appear to be Muslim.
They use strategies that are consistent with the Muslim worldview. Their children's book about Isa has no pictures of humans because pictures of humans are offensive to Muslims I was told. They do not use the Jesus film for the same reason. Muslims will watch the Jesus film, but they would not respect or believe in one treated with such disrespect as to be portrayed in pictures or films. Mohammed and other Muslim prophets did not—would not—allow their pictures to be used.
The life of Jesus in Arabic has been written in the Quranic style. It has thirty chapters just as the Quran. They don't use "Mathew" or "Mark" as names of books because Muslims don't use men's names that way. Instead they use "Manger" and "New Life" as the names for those books. Each chapter begins with "in the name of the God" just as in the Quran.
As I mentioned, by profession Rafique works in health care and professor Mia is a teacher, but their secret task is to spread the news about Isa. A few of them speak in tongues and, incidentally, they have a friend at Rhema in Oklahoma who has a healing miistry, but this is not their major emphasis. They study every Tuesday afternoon at Rafique’s office and have communion with water and bread. They do not observe Christmas and Easter, but they do keep Friday's Mosque prayer. Muslim Women are difficult to convert because of fear of their husbands, but men are possible to convert. The wives follow their husbands in conversion. Rafique’s group therefore targets husbands!
Their request was that I give them permission to use the New Testament Survey course produced by International Educational Fellowship, a Christian leadership and pastor- training organization with which I work as a part of my off campus ministry. Within two hours from our conversation we had installed on Rafique’s hard drive the entire forty-five courses that make up the Foundations of Ministry and School of Ministry curriculums. Under Rafique’s guidance these materials will now be passed on to appropriate persons one at a time secretly for personal study providing the person has shown significant interest in their way of serving Allah.
These believers are told by Christians in their country that they are not Christian because they do not observe Christmas and Easter. Rafique and his friends just go on believing and serving even without the strength and support of brother and sister Christians in their own nation. Do you feel I did the right thing to encourage Rafique?
1. GOD THE COMMUNICATOR
In the book God gave us He could have totally overwhelmed us with equations, formulas, astronomical, cosmological, chemical, molecular, geological and atomic information that would have caused even Albert Einstein to scratch his head and ask God to give it to us in a simpler form. Instead, God used a sheepherder—Amos, a fisherman—Peter, as well as scholars Moses and Paul to write a series of human stories in the common language of the day giving us a book that addresses human history and spiritual needs. This was done so perfectly that some say its just a human book. God contextualized his message so well that many do not realize that in those histories and discourses lay hidden, divine and supernatural truth.
There once was a man who so perfectly acted the part of a common man that even though miracles happened through him and divine wisdom came from his lips still some people thought He was just a man—not recognizing that God also contextualized himself so perfectly we didn’t even realize He came from outside our earthly context. God appeared to man so perfectly in the human context that men failed to realize He had been anywhere else. That was perfect contextualization!
God is a good communicator and conditions his requirements, making allowance for the endowment and opportunities of the people with whom He is dealing. God takes not only humanity and human weakness but also human culture into consideration. He is receptor oriented. He knows the grid through which his target audience is viewing the reality out there and adjusts his medium of communication accordingly: angels to shepherds, a star to Eastern astrologers. Because he knows the answer he does not need to ask, “How will they understand this?” but to follow His example we must ask that question.
We should learn from God and make our message fit the context wherever we serve whether it is a foreign county, rural America, academia or inner city. This is the central lesson of contextualization. To contextualize is to make the message fit the local situation, apply accurately to local issues and confront the right problems in a way consistent with local culture. If we do this well others cannot tell that the message came from outside the local context. In other words, if the message is rejected it should be because they don’t like the message, not because it of its foreignness.
2. LOCAL EXPRESSION OF MEANINGS
Any time our ministries of communicating theological truth involves translation we should translate meanings as opposed to words. Meanings are more important than words. We must become willing to sacrifice words in order to preserve meanings. God is primarily concerned with meaning, not the particular symbol used, and His model is worth trying to duplicate. In translation vocabulary this is called dynamic equivalent translation. Dynamic equivalent translations have the same impact on the new culture that the original translation had on the original culture. They may say something other than what was said in the original, but they will mean what the original meant.
As sensitive crosscultural Christian workers whether serving in our increasingly pluralistic society at home or whether we serve abroad we seek to make our message fit in the various contexts where we work. Whether we are working with translations, information, curriculum, theology, leadership and/or pastoral training, I recommend the use of local metaphors, illustrations, symbols, parables, proverbs, sayings and even jokes, all to our advantage as communicators. The message we have to share is so important that we must use the very most appropriate and applicable communicative methods to convey it.
3. FIND AND COMMUNICATE THE MEANING
We look for universal truth that applies to every person in every culture at all times—and then present it in ways understandable in the local culture.
The Bible contains universal truth which is above culture. In this paper we will therefore call it supracultural truth, but the communication issue becomes interestingly complex because the Bible writers also contextualized. They probably did this unconsciously since they were already a part of the cultural context which they were addressing. The supracultural truth in the Bible is therefore hidden or contained in its contextualized form in the cultural contexts in which it was written. The supracultural truth in the Bible needs to be de-coded from its Hebraic, Aramaic and Grecian contexts, untainted by the cultural (mis)interpretation of the crosscultural communicator and then encoded in the cultural terms of the receptor culture so they understand its meaning in their context.
What supracultural truth was Paul addressing when he told women to wear their hair long? Was he not speaking of honoring one’s head—one’s husband? Wear your hair long means honor your husband, not that people in another context must wear their hair a certain length. Today we would say, “Wear your wedding ring.” After washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus said, “Do as I have done.” This means serve each other in an attitude of humility, not necessarily, “wash each other’s feet.” Washing each others feet is not our custom today in the West—though because of the story of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet it could and does have the symbolic meaning of humility to some Christians.In that case, from a crosscultural perspective, Christians believing in “Foot Washings” have become a cultural subset and to them Jesus’ words have taken on an originally unintended yet nevertheless allowable meaning. My point is we should discover and teach the supracultural truth using whatever local symbols are necessary to convey the deeper spiritual or practical meaning.
One may say that the plain meaning is the true meaning. Then I must ask: Plain to whom? What or which meaning?
4. THE NEED FOR CONTINUAL REFORMATION
In the reformation of Acts 15 and in Martin Luther’s reformation we learn that each new geographical area may re-adapt the message to make it fit their contexts better. As we progress through chronological time new generations appear in the same geographical locations as previous generations. Do these new generations not also have the right to hear a contemporary gospel message and an applicable theology presented meaningfully in their contexts too? In the early seventies, besides pasturing a “straight” church in rural Ontario, I also worked with a group of Canadian ‘Jesus People.’ I didn’t realize then that what I was doing instinctively was contextualizing my message in a way consistent with principles I now know how to explain. God is not threatened by the adapted approach. To be sensitive to the cultural, sociological and psychological situation of the receptor is not offensive to God. Rather, He is delighted that we are willing to incarnate the message in a new context—just as Jesus incarnated himself into the human context.
Notice these statements by Wang Kong in “Closing the Leadership Gap” found in the Summer, 1998 issue of The Connection. Perhaps he represents many non-Westerners.
“It is no secret that some of the most serious divisions in the Chinese church in recent years have arisen due to outside teachers placing undue emphasis upon doctrines that would be seen by many as, at best, non-essential . . .
“To a large extent overseas Chinese theological education has been based on a Western model . . .
“They need to be able to put aside cultural biases and either omit or alter allusions and illustrations in their teaching that are not relevant to a mainland audience.”
God wants to be understood. It is better to make the message clear than to waste our hearer’s time with something unclear which may discredit the relevancy of our gospel.
In my appeal for sensitivity to context I am not saying we should throw off all restraints. We should, in fact, recognize there is a limited range of acceptable variation. Yet there is some room to wiggle. Even Calvin noted that the New Testament writers used “freer language than the original” in the Old Testament. They were content if what they quoted applied to their subject. This is called the “Bible as tether” model.
Compare Mk. 2:26 and I Sam. 21:1-6. Mark says “Abiathar” but according to First Samuel it was “Ahimelech” who gave David the consecrated bread. Yet, God does not straighten Mark out. There is freedom allowed in the use or choice of words, but the integrity of the meaning is to be preserved. Therefore in translating theological materials feel free to incorporate helpful explanations or necessary additions naturally in the text of the translation. We want it to be clear at first reading, not a foreign statement that requires a footnote.
A “revelation” is not revelatory until it has become subjective. It has to mean something to me—to mean something to me. When attempting to assist in the birth of an indigenous church—a church of the local soil—we lead people, and in some cases release people, to discover applications of the Bible’s messages to their own particular or local situations. If we truly believe that the Holy Spirit will guide those with whom we work into all truth just as He has guided us into all truth we have a spiritual reason to release them as well as missiological reasons.
We train pastors usually by putting information in their heads, but they are often unable to comprehend or are unmotivated because it has not come to them with revelation which is different from relevance. Revelation is like one part of a two part epoxy and plastic steel combination. One is base and one is activator. Both are needed. We need written truth, but we also need revelation.
A contextualized theology is hammered out by missionaries and national church leaders working together. Neither can do it alone. Foreign missionaries working alone would tend to pass on a foreign theology and the nationals by themselves may tend to produce a syncretistic theology. What we are seeking in a contextualized theology is a Bible-based, relative and applicable revelation—that scratches just right, right where they itch.
7. FREEDOM FOR EXPRESSION
The Bible is free of errors in what it teaches. It is the truth of the message that is pure and free from error and this we will preserve. In developing curriculums, writing theologies and doing translations individual words can and should be chosen using the criteria: what words will best convey the meaning intended?
Our cultures are like a magnet that draws us to certain sections of the scripture which seem most applicable in our culture. We and the national church leaders with whom we work should be free to let the magnet do its work—or we could miss what is most important or valuable in any given context. Do you get excited reading a genealogy? I don’t, but some cultures keep genealogies only of important people. The genealogies in the gospels signal to them that the man at the end of the list is an important person!
In I Peter 3:19 does Jesus’ “preaching to the spirits in prison” mean there is some hope for ancestors who died without hearing the gospel? In American culture we wouldn’t even think of that question, but in many cultures that is an important one. What great new applicability the Bible might have if we learn to let the local culture ask the questions. What if we were to think of the Bible as a book of case-studies—not a theology textbook? There are many lessons there our culture does not allow us to learn because our culture is simply not asking all the questions.
If the church looses its sense of vitality, excitement and adventure—we are less than the apostolic church. Not only our teaching and curriculum, but the church, worship, place, time, style, personnel choices all also ought to be dynamically equivalent; they should fit the local situation just as nicely as meeting at Solomon’s porch seemed a likely place for the early believers in Jerusalem to meet.
From another angle, if we over-value each word in the Bible and miss the process of application of its truth we may be led into Bibleolatry—worship of the Bible—rather than worshipping God as a result of applying the Bible’s truth to our lives. “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the law until everything is accomplished.” Mt. 5:18This verse does not make individual words and symbols sacred, rigid and inflexible; it emphasizes that what God says will happen will happen. This is not a verse about how to translate the Bible; it is about the enduring quality of the truth in the Bible.
Application is a major component of contextualized theology and that requires flexibility to change words to preserve meanings. Words are inspired incidentally—it is the thoughts that are important. Some people are too preoccupied with the gift-wrapping and miss the value of the gift—preoccupied with the words and miss the truth. The importance in the words is derived from the truth that the words convey.
We touched on translation above. Now let us think more fully about what a good translation should be like. Here are three tests: 1. It does not sound or read like a translation, 2. The translator was free to allow his own personality to express itself, and 3. The effect on the reader is just as living and vivid as the original was on the original readers and hearers.
Formal correspondence translations, however, obscure intended meanings. This is because there is often no word in a language which means exactly the same as a particular word in another language. A translation should not need outside footnotes or additional outside explanations. The translator should write clearly what the original means, not what it says. Any necessary explanation should be incorporated naturally right in the text. Then it is clear without any explanation tacked on. Word-faithful translations, not necessarily, but could be meaning-faithless translations. The Bible writers wanted to be understood, not admired. The greater the cultural and linguistic distance between the original and the new translation the greater the liberties we should allow to preserve the integrity of the meaning.
Abundant life. What does this mean? The Christian life has both qualitative and quantitative values; values eternal and everlasting; also abundant, real and meaningful. This can be stated two ways: We have life that extends forever and incidentally is meaningful here and now, or we have life that is meaningful here and now and incidentally extends forever. If our communication is receptor oriented perhaps we should use whichever is more important to our audience! Even in one country—the United States—there are some at the low end of the economic scale for whom abundant life as “meaningful here and now” would be most valuable and others at the top end for whom “extends forever” would truly be “good news.”
In one culture of the world people do not lock their doors. Whenever a guest comes to visit they call out to their friend who recognizes their voice and welcome them in. In that context if a thief approaches a house he does not want to reveal who he is by speaking so he says nothing and knocks on the door. If someone is home and asks who it is he silently slips away—undiscovered. In this culture friends call at the door and thieves knock. In such a context how would you translate Revelation 3:20? “Here I am! I stand at the door and ----.”If we said “knock” we would miscommunicate whereas if we said “call” we would communicate accurately.
In parts of Papua New Guinea sweet potatoes and pigs are the main diet and means of exchange. If there is a misunderstanding between persons, families or communities a certain number of pigs can be used to buy release or forgiveness of the debt. In such a context they have immediate understanding when God is portrayed as purchasing a good relationship between mankind and Himself by offering “the Pig of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
9. AN AMERICAN HANDICAP
Travel costs money. Americans are therefore financially the best able, but, culturally, least suitable to do the missionary task. There are several reasons for this. Because the United States is economically, technologically and militarily strong Americans have unconsciously and unintentionally taken on an unhealthy combination of ethnocentrism and national pride. When we travel abroad our advantages are obvious to us but the strengths of others are not noticed. This is due partly because our value system has not trained us nor does it allow us to even notice their strengths. We don’t notice or fully appreciate the attitudes of a servants heart, humility, yieldedness, simplicity, graciousness, hospitality and the honoring of others that their cultures emphasize and our hosts demonstrate.
For four days I recently stayed in the home of a carpenter in Kenya. I slept in the living-dining room area of their small house on the foam rubber mat they provided for me. By candlelight we moved the coffee table and couches each evening to make room. In the next room roosted the chickens we were eating that week—one or two less of them each night! There were about twelve of us who ate together at this house so we pretty much all lived in community. My prayer time in the morning was spent walking in the neighborhood; everything else was done in front of everyone else. My hostess graciously offered to do my laundry and I accepted the offer. I shaved by brail (without a mirror) in front of the house using a pan of warm water. The outhouse had two rooms—the toilet and a bath room in which I bathed each day. This latter room had a stone placed in the middle of the floor so as to minimize the effects of the wet dirt on the feet of the bather. This mud naturally developed because of the water splashed from the bucket. That was also the time and place for changing clothes. My training in intercultural studies and years of experience living and traveling abroad prepared me for most of this and I did not think too much of it.
However, I mention it to you because what was not evident until near the end of my time in that home was the fact that every bit of water for laundry, drinking, cooking and bathing was hand carried by the hostess from the village well some distance from their home! When I learned that I appreciated their hospitality all the more. I shudder to think of how rude or insensitive I might have been. My culture did not prepare me to be sensitive to how far water was carried for my bath and laundry. My culture did not prepare me to even think of this question or possibly offer to help carry water. Americans are economically prepared to buy plane tickets, but perhaps we are culturally handicapped if not the least qualified. America is the most unlike all the other nations of the world of any nation in the world. I believe our gracious hosts and hostesses in other countries are willing to overlook that, but we certainly don’t want to add arrogance to our cultural disadvantages. Because our culture does not place a high value on quiet humility, patience, service and honor to others we don’t recognize it when we see it.
I have just referred to strengths of others. Who defines what courtesy is, the Western missionary or the local culture? What of their sins? Who defines what sin is, the Western missionary or the local culture. Europeans, Africans, Latin Americans and Asians should be released to strive to live up to their own consciences—not to live up to the conscience of foreigners. Sin in some cases may be defined according to local application of the Bible to the local cultural context.
10. START WHERE PEOPLE ARE
God starts with us where we are and works with us to help us grow. Starting point and process is the name of the model that expresses this thought. God is willing to accept us where we are. He is willing to gradually bring us through the process of growth toward ours and his ideals. Polygamy, slavery and smoking are all possible examples. The direction of our lives and our central allegiance must change at conversion but some changes will take several generations. God seems to be less concerned about pure doctrine and more concerned about pure hearts than we are.
When asked about polygamy I suggest we accept the marriage vows of the generation now accepting Christ, multiple wives and all, and then teach the next generation the value of monogamy. On the plane from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania to Arusha, Tanzania a Tanzanian lady with whom I chatted told me many African men turn to Islam because Christianity doesn’t accept polygamy. To force instant monogamy on an existing polygamous family system is to require numerous divorces and great social upheaval. When insisting on instant monogamy what did we do with the anti-divorce teaching? Do we have to require divorce and social upheaval in order to become a Christian? Why can’t we start where they are?
11. THE ROLE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
Paul could never have covered as much territory as quickly as he did if he had stayed in each place long enough to solve the kinds of problems that are generally associated with the establishment of new churches. He trusted the Holy Spirit in matters of finance, church discipline and administration and moved on to other new areas. While he stayed in contact with the churches in which he had taught and ministered it is clear that he was willing to trust much to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. When we recognize how the Holy Spirit has worked in each of our lives to lead us into the truth, is it too much to expect Him to work in a similar way among our converts?
Tolerance of doctrinal differences between Christians is a mark of maturity. There is a great deal of doctrinal diversity even among just those of us who value the work of the Holy Spirit among Christians today. If we let it, the position of Mary or questions of the trinity could divide us, but we don’t let it. We all feel that those to whom God has given His Holy Spirit are our brothers and sisters and we ought to accept them. Is it not possible to think along similar lines when discussing different expressions of Christianity each fitting appropriately their different cultural contexts?
The more culturally specific a theology is the less it is able to effectively address the needs in other contexts. Most people’s reaction to this is to try to produce a cover-all or universal theology. Generalizations abound and specific issues are not addressed. I feel the multi-cultural mosaic of the body of Christ in the World would be much more colorful and mean more in each context if we released the Holy Spirit to work in and through the national church leaders to address issues of concern in their contexts. Should Christians bow before the graves of parents at anniversaries of their deaths? Should Christians use the same herbs witchdoctors prescribe for certain sicknesses? Should we lift and kiss the Bible to indicate it is a holy and revered book? Do believers have to celebrate Christmas and Easter? Should Christian women wear veils? The Holy Spirit has been helping people in a number of different contexts for centuries. He is to be trusted to help each people group develop a theology that addresses the right questions, confronts the right sins and offers the right biblical solutions to culturally specific and pertinent problems.
And now back to the question I asked you at the beginning of my paper. Remember Rafique? “Did I do the right thing to encourage Rafique? Did I do the right thing to give him the curriculums? Did I do the right thing to tell him he could and should adjust them to fit his situation? Did I do the right thing to tell him to omit what did not fit? Did I do the right thing to release Him to add to it whatever he and his colleagues feel necessary so it addresses important issues in his context? And would you have accepted Him as a brother even though he doesn’t use the word “Christian” and prays to Allah in a Mosque? Would you have given him the curriculums? Are you willing to let his countrymen find salvation through Isa and worship Allah as Rafique teaches them?
It is easier on us to require others to come to our world, but those of us who believe in incarnational missions cannot escape the obligation to be the ones who go into another person’s world. May the Holy Spirit help us to get there culturally as well as geographically and to do the right thing in their context.