”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 Read the rest of this entry »