”We must…acknowledge the fact that there is not and cannot be a gospel which is not culturally embodied. This is simply another way of affirming…the historical nature of the gospel”.
– Bishop James Edward Lesslie Newbigin
What is Gospel?
Before entering the debate about cultural relevance and historicity of the gospel I believe it is first important to speak about what it is when we mention the word gospel. Often when we refer to the gospel, we add to it its meaning found in Greek as “the good news”. While Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says quite neatly and explicitly that the gospel is “the message concerning Christ, the kingdom of God, and salvation” it is hard to find any good news in this definition alone. Thus it is only natural to ask for more, if the gospel is to “live up” to its Greek notion.
The Big Picture
Roughly, if the message is to be complete and clear we need to start by going all the way back to Genesis, showing God’s wonderful creation and the fall that happened right after which separated us from Him. We may continue by explaining God’s holiness and his hatred towards sin and then stop for a while at “the last judgment”. Now when the big picture is painted, only at this moment the entire message about Christ’s reconciling death on the cross makes sense and makes the news good. Without it, I am like a person that tells his friend that he had paid a very high speeding ticket for him. Yet, if my friend doesn’t know he had one, he will not appreciate it and will only consider me to be a fool for saying something like that. Only when I first stop and explain him the circumstances he will appreciate the good news I am about to tell him.
While we need to pay heed to the big picture it is the person of Jesus Christ who is in the very center of the gospel message. He is the one whom prophets were speaking about in the Old Testament pointing towards the future. And the one about whom the apostles in the New Testament spread the news, referring to the past. Therefore it is crucial to look at Jesus and his stay on the Earth. Above all, it is evident that He was born into a specific context and culture in a specific time and space. Into well-defined group of people with their particular language, traditions, habits and way of thinking also depended partly on the level of knowledge available to them at that moment.
Even though the thoughts he presented were for most people radically revolutionary and some of his behavior by all means surpassed the conventional demeanor we can also find many aspects or instances in which he displayed very contextual conduct. Stating the obvious he spoke the local languages, wore common clothes, had a usual profession or even engaged himself in public celebrations. Anyway, if we could somehow observe him for a while we would quite easily be able to strictly categorize him as a lower-class craftsman from Middle East in times of late Ancient History.
The Weight of Culture
The latter of the previous two considerations affirms that the core section of the gospel is indisputably rooted in a historical context and former indicates that without a proper application there can be no gospel. In other words if our communication is not clear and complete the message we intended to communicate might be anything but gospel. Thus it is crucial to employ appropriate, contemporary means of communication that will meet recipients in their situation, in their language so they would understand the overall message we strive to get over and not focus on mere exact transfer of biblical vocabulary.
What Does it Mean for us Today?
Now when we know that the gospel was culturally embodied and that culture is inevitable part of any group of people and it influences their thought processes there are two direct outcomes we ought to adopt as church for the purpose of running effective mission work.
- Perform justified (a.) exegesis of scriptural text in order to extract the true (b.) underlying meaning (timeless principle) of the studied text followed by (c.) hermeneutical demonstration that will offer possible application and will bring the impersonal principles close to our time-bound audience, making these truths immediate and easy to comprehend.
- Contextualize the entire process considering the culture of a target group.
Thus culture and contextualization are concepts that in the missional field must work closely together.
Paul the Pathfinder
A prototypical example of such an approach is Paul’s sermon in Athens where he starts his presentation with a reference to a statue of an UKNOWN GOD that he had found in the city. He seeks to find the point of connection, the common ground through which he first, links with the people and then continues speaking in such a way that fits the local culture and knowledge of Greek philosophers gathering in Areopagus. If we compared this speech with the other ones he held in e.g. Antioch, Lydia or Jerusalem, we would find distinct marks of their context in each one of them. Unfortunately a deeper exposition of this paradigm goes beyond the scope of this piece.
Building common ground is not merely for the sole purpose of being hip, cool or trendy, but it is to use culture as a starting point to proclaim the gospel, (1) catching people’s attention by making our message relevant to their current situation and also (2) communicating by means that go along with the particular context.
“The goal is to make the translation or teaching clear. For example, would you tell someone who was born, has lived, and grown old in the deep heart of a jungle that his sins could be washed whiter than snow when he’s never seen snow? Would you tell an Eskimo about shepherds and sheep when he’s never seen the like? Why not substitute the word “sheep” with the word “seal”?”
Secondly, throughout the history the main medium of communication was spoken word (passing on information) and then written text. We can also find some monumental paintwork, yet that is altogether almost trivial in comparison to the wide-spread usage of imagery we have today. Photos, pictures and animated videos are the leading means of communication nowadays.
Another shift lies in the way people think, when listening to narratives.
“My generation appealed to the rationale in order to get to the emotions; the present generation tends to appeal to the emotions to earn the right to address the rationale.”
This insight might be crucial, for if, according to this quote, we start from the wrong end our audience will not regard anything we have to say of least importance for them.
Over-Contextualization vs. Under-Contextualization
Having all that said we need to keep in mind that contextualization as such ought not to substitute the gospel message. In other words when we over-contextualize we indirectly doubt the power of the gospel. Paul expressed his confidence in the gospel in his epistle to Romans where he says “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” We must also share the same confidence by believing that the gospel is in itself powerful.
On the other hand by under-contextualizing we might be facing an unhealthy aspiration to our own sub-culture that will find its actualization at the expense of our clear communication of the gospel and might erect unnecessary obstacles for possible newcomers.
Ultimately, it appears that contextualization needs to be balanced and one should be in a continual process of self-examination, reflecting on his motives when either supporting or standing against certain cultural adaptation. Making Christ known in this world ought to be always our highest priority and this is only one of the methods that can help us do it better. Everything points to the fact that God loves variegation and while we were placed in certain setting that destines us to prefer some elements over another; we can expand our love for different expressions by simply doing what every Christian naturally aims for – to have Jesus Christ grow in us while our own ego with its carnal desires and longings is attenuated.
http://www.gty.org/blog/B111007 Foundation Documents. 2008. The Gospel Coalition.