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"The ultimate goal in contextualization is to help a language group see how God can be a real part of their everyday life as they practice Biblical faith."
— Dean Gilliland
by David J. Hesselgrave
(Originally appeared in Communicating Cross-Culturally. Adapted and used under the "Fair Use" provision of the U.S. Copyright Act)
Think about this possible scenario: While you are visiting a university campus in the American Southwest, a friend who is preparing for Peace Corps service invites you to attend a class with him. During the lecture, the course instructor outlines problems that may be encountered in introducing what we see as more efficient methods or machines to either Native Americans or to rural people in India. He explains that the problems may stem from the fact that people of other cultures understand the notion of "progress" in very different ways. The Indian peasant may well ask "What is progress?" and inquire as to why he should adopt a method of rice-growing simply because it is considered more efficient. The American of European origin may see the exchange of horse and wagon for a pickup truck as a case of unquestioned progress, but for the Navajo Indian, a pickup truck is simply a desirable substitute, not "progress"
The instructor goes on to explain that the different ideas of "progress" are understandable when one stops to reconstruct the fundamental perspectives of the three cultures involved in the scenario:
Here in the U.S. he would be able to assume that, if he could demonstrate the practical superiority of a certain technique or practice, people would adopt it. Elsewhere in the world, such a proof might fall on deaf ears and uncomprehending minds. An American sees a pickup truck as an absolute advance over a horse and wagon. It is more efficient and faster and, all in all, totally in keeping with his notion of progress. To the Navajo Indian, the pickup truck is no less desirable, but it is not progress. It is simply a substitute for a horse and wagon.
This is a difficult idea to put into illustrative words. Perhaps it will help to compare the Navajo's overall view of history with our own. The Navajo believes that his people were created in mythic times through various miraculous adventures, each of which gave rise to the ancestor of one of the tribe's many clans. To him those times are not really past. By singing the proper songs and carrying out certain rituals, the Navajo medicine man brings those events of the creation myths back to life and uses them to cure illnesses. Similarly the Hopi Indian, dancing in his elaborate masks and costume, becomes to a degree one of the beings who created the earth and to whom the Hopi owe allegiance.
In the day-to-day life of the Christian, however, there is no such circularity of existence. The earth was created and will remain so until it ends. Christ was born, lived, preached, and was crucified. If he is to come again it will be a second coming, not the same one. Adam and Abraham, Moses and Saul are historical as well as sacred figures and our theologians and historians have spent much time establishing their precise place in history. From Adam's fall to the present is an expanse of time which will never be repeated.
The Hindu, by contrast, lives in a universe that remains essentially the same and humanity moves through it a life at a time. A person's status may rise toward godliness, or escape from life, or it may descend through the lower orders of existence as a consequence of the way he or she lives each life, but through it all the universe remains the same. Such a person does not live in a universe that constantly changes or progresses -- rather, he or she changes within a changeless universe. Little wonder then that the Hindu seems fatalistic to westerners and uninterested in progress as we see it. He or she is interested in improvements in life -- better living conditions, more money, healthier children -- but each of these things is a separate and distinct condition, not an aspect of something called progress.
The caveat remains. Don't expect all people to view as you do this thing called progress or even to understand the idea. Remembering this can save a great deal of frustrating misunderstanding.
This illustration is a good starting point to look at intercultural communication. It illustrates several all important facts about people in culture. In the first place, human beings in certain large cultural groupings tend to share certain fundamental commonalties in defining the reality around them. This commonality is a part of culture. Any given culture is made up of folkways, modes and mores, language, human productions, and social structures. Culture is all of these and more than these. It is also the larger significance of people and things in relation to which these aspects of culture take on meaning. One might compare culture to a large and intricate tapestry. The tapestry is made up of numberless threads, various colors, larger shadings and lines all of which go to make up the overall mosaic or pattern which in turn serves in interpreting any part. Culture is also this wholeness, this larger reality. [ Definition of culture: PowerPoint ]
In the second place, people are born and reared "into" culture. They are enculturated. By this process culture is made to be uniquely their own -- the cultural reality becomes their reality over a period of time. As James Downs has written:
"Men living in coherent groups...define the world around them, deciding what is real and how to react to this reality. Failure to grasp this simple fact about culture -- that is, culture (rather than rocks or trees or other physical surroundings) is the environment of human beings -- dooms any attempt to work in a cross-cultural context."
In the third place, since people of a culture take this culturally determined view of reality with utmost seriousness, the missionary communicator must take it with utmost seriousness also. Failing to do so may render the missionary incapable of effective communication. This does not mean that every way of looking at reality is valid. It is obvious that certain cultural views cancel out certain other cultural views. The point to be stressed here is that the way of looking at reality which prevails in any respondent culture is valid for the members of that culture. It is that validity that must be taken with utmost seriousness by the missionary if he wants to communicate Christ in the respondent or target culture. Because respondents decode messages within the framework of a reality provided by their own culture, the missionary must encode his message with that reality in mind. To put this in other terms, the communication of most people is circumscribed by the perspective provided by their own world view. This also is true of the missionary. Moreover, it will be true of him until he makes that herculean effort required to understand the worldview of his respondents in their culture and learns to speak within that framework. At that point, true missionary communication can begin.
Norman Geisler correctly contends:
The Christian accepts as axiomatic that his task is to communicate Christ to the world. That sounds simple enough, but in fact it is very complex. It is complex for at least three reasons: first, there are many views of "Christ"; secondly, there are many ways to "communicate"; and thirdly, there are many "worlds" to which Christ must be communicated.
Geisler goes on to liken the various worldviews to colored glasses through which people see themselves and the universe around them. Everything is given the "tint" or "hue" of whatever particular "worldview glasses" the person happens to be wearing. Moreover, since the vast majority of people are used to just one pair of these world view glasses from the time of their earliest recollections, they are not predisposed -- even were they able -- to lay those glasses aside (even temporarily) in order to look at the world through another pair of glasses.
The glasses analogy is a good one as we shall see!
The way people see reality can be termed their worldview. In Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, English, and certain other languages, one meaning for the word "see" is "know." For example, in English, people sometimes use "I see" to mean "I understand." A world view is the way people see or perceive the world, the way they know it to be. What people see is, in part, what is there. It is partly who we are. But these combine to form one reality, one worldview.
From a communication point of view, we must analyze the worldviews of our respondent cultures. That because it is in the context of these worldviews that our message will be decoded and evaluated. One reason why much missionary communication has been monological (one way -- missionary to respondent) is that missionaries have not been conversant enough with worldviews other than their own. In ignorance of what is happening in the decoding process, they have simply "related" (whatever that means!) the gospel. One gets the impression that in some cases the motivation is to deliver the soul of the missionary rather than to save the souls of those who hear him.
That was not the case with Christ and the apostles. Our Lord ministered almost exclusively within the confines of Judaism's worldview. It is clear, however, He adapted to interests, needs, and "points of view" within its various sub-contexts. For instance, Jesus did not talk to the rich young ruler in terms of the new birth, or to the woman of Samaria in terms of "selling what she had and following Him," or to Nicodemus in terms of the Water of Life. All three of those approaches are valid ways to present God's eternal truth. However, they would not have been nearly as valid when interchanged with different contexts.
In the same vein, Peter and Paul adapted their message to the worldviews of their respondents. A comparison of Peter's message on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36), his message in the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:34-43), Paul's messages in the synagogue of Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:16-41) and his message on Mars' hill in Athens (Acts 17:22-31) reveals Peter's and Paul's profound appreciation for the differences between monotheistic Jews and Gentile God-fearers, and between Jews and polytheistic heathen.
So, how can missionaries communicate from their world view into other worldviews? How can they make a persuasive case to non-Christian respondents who are seeing things through the glasses of their own respective worldviews? Only three ways are logically possible:
Approaches one and three have limited validity and practicality. The second approach -- the contextualization of the message by the missionary into the worldview of his respondents -- seems most in keeping with the missionary calling and the realities of culture. The missionary is the evangel to human beings only when they understand something about the God of whom he speaks and the true nature of the human condition. With God's ends in view, he begins with their starting point. What they believe concerning the existence and nature of reality, the world around them, and human beings in relationship to the whole is of the essence. Adaptation to those beliefs is one of the first requirements of missionary communication. This process will affect the source, substance, and style of the missionary message.
Identification is not so much a matter of adopting this or that kind of dress or food as it is a matter of entering into the experiences of a people with understanding. To do this, one must know what lies behind those experiences; one must take other people's worldview seriously. We take other worldviews seriously, in the first place, when we study them and demonstrate an understanding of them. An understanding of their respective worldviews enables the missionary to account for the attraction which neutrality holds for the Indian, the fatalism of the Muslim, the affection which Ibero-Americans have for the Virgin Mary, the ethnocentrism of the Japanese, and the inclination of many peoples to downgrade sin, or add another deity, or honor the ancestors.
A careful study of the Chinese worldview, for example, may enable a missionary to Chinese people to see why the Chinese said that the Japanese occupation forces in the 1930's and 1940's were "killing" the earth. (According to the Chinese myth, the man-god Pan-Ku was born from the Yin and Yang. He sacrificed himself and thus became the substance of creation. His head became the mountains, his hair the trees, his breath the clouds, his veins the rivers, and his voice the thunder.)
Careful study will help a missionary to Chinese people understand why a corpse is laid out in a direct line toward the door, and why bridal parties take a circuitous route to the marriage ceremony. (The traditional belief was that evil spirits cannot turn corners. Therefore the bridal couple taking a devious route cannot be followed by evil spirits. In the case of the corpse, if the spirit were to become a werewolf, it would walk straight through the door and not remain in the house.)
By demonstrating an understanding of such beliefs, the missionaries gain integrity and credibility before their audience. The missionary's purpose is not to impress or entertain the people. Instead, he seeks to demonstrate that he has considered indigenous alternatives to God's revelation in Christ and that he is not a religious huckster who is simply hawking God's Word (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:17 LB). Ideally, the missionary will come to be seen as someone who can be trusted, someone who understands. The need for this kind of missionary insight may be even more important when the rationale for a custom or ritual has been forgotten by the people while the custom itself remains.
We take other worldviews seriously when, in the second place, we make every effort to empathize with their adherents. Missionary communication is not enhanced by an arrogant show of superiority, or by ridiculing or downgrading other views, or by repeatedly pointing out their inconsistencies. There is the case of the missionary who carefully studied the Shinto myth in order to hold it up to ridicule. To make his point, he pointed to the slanted eyes and rounded features of indigenous gods and laughed what he regarded as signs of their provinciality. While such an approach may serve the ego, it betrays the Kingdom. To be sure, the weaknesses, inconsistencies, and inadequacies of false systems of philosophy and religion are not to be overlooked. But missionaries must also deal with other religions at the points of their strength. Examples of strength are numerous. The contributions of Buddhism to the arts of China and Japan are a matter of record. The attraction of Hindu inclusivism in a divided world is incontrovertible. The fascination with which many view mysticism and transcendental experience is evident in the West as well as the East. The fact that adherents of some other religions are much more appreciative of the world around them than are many Christians who ostensibly accept that world as a gift of Almighty God is plain to see. That many an atheist exhibits much less of materialistic outlook than many Christians goes without saying.
We must learn to deal with the best case that non-Christians can make, rather than trying to knock down their weakest case. Otherwise, we succeed only in pricking balloons and knocking down straw men. Dealing honestly and sympathetically with the best case that any form of unbelief can make, and then showing the desperate need that still remains and how it can only be met by the true God and his redeeming Son is the more excellent way.
When we take this kind of approach, we can identify with people in their searching. We, too, are sinners. It is possible that we too gave our best efforts and thought to these perplexing questions of life only to discover that our best was unavailing and that we were poor sinners in need of the only Savior and Lord. We must remember that millions of the world's people believe they have "never seen a sinner." Their own worldviews do not allow for such a category. And when the missionary comes to them, he comes as a "saint" who is somehow better than other people. He comes as a "religious man" whose record of past sins has been wiped out and whose present sins are as invisible as the missionary can make them.
There is a better way. The missionary in his new situation is a sinner saved by grace. He sinned against God in his own worldview by rejecting the Creator and Redeemer of men. Yet, he was captivated by God's truth and love. Such a context makes the missionary a more faithful communicator of the Christian message. Moreover, he is recognized as a person of goodwill who has the best interests of his respondents at heart.
These are some of the ways the missionary wins a hearing and authenticates his message. Our approach must take us beyond sympathy to empathy, even though such an approach has its price.
The Christian message is universal. It is for all people irrespective of race, language, culture, or circumstance. Some have therefore naively assumed that this ends the matter. The reasoning goes that if one knows what the gospel is, all that remains is being motivated to deliver it. There is, of course, "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all" (Ephesians 4:5-6). But without betraying that unique message in any way, the gospel writers and preachers of the New Testament demonstrated a remarkable variegation in their communication of it, not only in style but in substance.
Think about our previous examples in the ministries of Christ, Peter, and Paul. In each case, the missionary communication pointedly referred to the basic spiritual need of man in his natural state of sin and alienation from God. In each case, however, this universal need was particularized somewhat differently:
In the New Testament, missionary communication involved either making a case for Christian claims from the Old Testament (in the case of those who held to the Judeo-Christian worldview), or filling in the information about God, His world, human beings, and history which the Old Testament affords in the case of those who come to the table with non-Judeo-Christian worldviews. In the discourses of Paul at Lystra (Acts 14:15-17) and on Mars' hill (Acts 17:22-31), Paul begins with the Creator God who was unknown to those Gentile polytheists. Paul's approach is elaborated in the first chapters of Romans.
We conclude, therefore, that while certain general statements can be made concerning the substance of the gospel (such as in 1 Corinthians 15:1-9) and the spiritual need of a human being as a sinner (e.g., Romans 3:9-18), the communication of these truths in specific situations involves a contextualization process which includes definition, selection, adaptation, and application.
1. Definition. One of the disastrous aspects of man's sin was that he did not retain God in his knowledge. As a result man's understanding has been perverted in precisely those areas where divine revelation is crystal clear. The true God is excluded, but false gods abound. People distinguish between good and evil in some way, but not in accordance with the biblical view. A majority of people believe themselves to be immortal in some sense of the term, but the forms of immortality vary greatly with worldviews. Geoffrey Bull's reflections on presenting Christ to Tibetan Buddhists illustrates the point well:
"The expansion of the Tibetan language came with the growth of Buddhist philosophy; thus words used often represent two distinct concepts. We take up and use a word in Tibetan, unconsciously giving it a Christian content. For the Tibetans, however, it may carry Buddhist content.
"We speak of God. In our minds this word conveys to us the concept of the supreme and Eternal Spirit, Creator and Sustainer of all things, Whose essence is Love, Whose presence is all holy, and Whose ways are all righteous. For the Tibetans, the word god means nothing of the kind. We speak of prayer, the spiritual communion between God our Father and His children. For them, prayer is a repetition of abstruse formulae and mystic phrases handed down from time immemorial. We speak of sin. For them, the main emphasis is in the condemnation of killing animals.
"When I was at Batang I saw a Buddhist dramatic play. One of the chief sins depicted was the catching of fish. When I asked the special significance of the "transgression" I was told, "Oh, fishes mustn't be killed, they can't speak," meaning, I presume, that they utter no sound. It is a common sight to see a man, when killing a yak, at the same time muttering his "prayers" furiously. Gross immorality is also condemned by the most thoughtful lamas, but rarely publicly.
"We speak of the Savior. They think of Buddha or the Dalai Lama. We speak of God being a Trinity. They will say: "Yes, god the Buddha, god the whole canon of Buddhist scripture, and god the whole body of the Buddhist priesthood." We speak of man's spirit being dead in sin and his thus being cut off from God. They cannot understand. A person, they say, is only soul and body. What do you mean by the third concept, a man's spirit? When a man dies, they believe his soul escapes by one of the nine holes in his body: we know nothing of his spirit, they say. We speak of a revelation from God, His own Word which we are commanded to believe, and they know no word but the vast collection of Buddhist sayings, which only one in a thousand even vaguely understands. Those who have studied them believe that only in the exercise of the human intellect, in meditation and contemplation over a very long period, can one begin to enter into the deep things of the "spirit" -- what "spirit" though, perhaps few of them realize.
"We Christians, of course, speak of the Holy Spirit as a gift of God to the believer in Christ. They say, "What nonsense! As if a man could obtain the Holy Spirit as easily as that." Of course, I would point out the other aspect; that it is not so much our possessing the Spirit, as the Spirit possessing us. On acceptance of Christ, the believer is born of the Spirit, yet it may be but slowly that He will obtain full sovereignty of the heart and will. This is dismissed as being contrary to the concept of God being a Spirit. We speak of the Almighty power of God and yet of humans as being responsible to Him, particularly in our acceptance or rejection of His way of salvation. I was told this was a "lower doctrine," cause and effect as a fatalistic law being widely propounded by the lamas."
-- When Iron Gates Yield, originally published by Hodder & Stoughton, 1955. Moody Press edition, pages 97-99
The missionary who takes the Fall seriously, then, must stop and define terms. He must define those terms in ways dictated by the distance between divine truth and cultural error. The definitional process must proceed by comparison and contrast. This process may seem too painstaking for Western missionaries used to instant everything -- from instant cake to instant coffee to instant conversion. But the missionary should know that to build Christian conversion on non-Christian worldviews can be like building skyscrapers on sand. The mission fields are overly populated with men and women who have been ushered into the heavenlies without knowing why they got on the elevator. Once back on earth, they have no intention of being taken for another ride.
2. Selection. We must realize that the missionary only gives a partial message in each particular situation. Christ commanded us to teach people to observe all things which He commanded (Matthew 28:20), but certainly He did not intend that we deliver everything in one sitting! As a matter of fact, Christ never did that Himself, nor did the apostles. Selection has always been necessary! Thus while the missionary communicates nothing but the truth, he or she only can only communicates the whole truth over a period of time. Understanding comes with precept taught upon precept and line upon line.
It was an awareness of the need for selection that prompted some missionaries of the past to avoid Old Testament passages narrating the wars of the Israelites. The missionaries' rationale was that the people were already too warlike. Of course, it would be both fallacious and faithless to think that the exploits of Israel could be forever neglected. But in every case, care should be exercised in selecting culturally appropriate expressions of God's message to man. Let the polytheist be told of the power of Christ, not just to save souls, but to subdue all things to himself. Let him hear that the "unknown God" has revealed Himself to human beings. Let the Confucianist know that the only superior Man is the Son of God and Savior of men who recreates people and makes them into better husbands, wives, children, friends, and citizens. Let the Muslim see that God is love and hear why God can be just and the Justifier of the one who believes in Jesus. Let our Jewish friend hear once again that Christians believe that God still has a great future for them as a people and that a new day will dawn for any Jew who will look long enough at Jesus of Nazareth to see who He really is.
3. Adaptation. The sensitive missionary source of gospel communication defines terms and makes a careful selection of content from the larger revelation of God. He or she also carries on a closely related and continual process of adaptation. The sensitive missionary notes the special concerns occasioned by the particular worldview and adjusts to those concerns.
For example, in the Hindu-Buddhistic or Taoist contexts, there is little point in attempting to demonstrate the sinfulness of human beings by pointing out that people are liars. In a culture where all propositional statements (and especially those of a religious nature) are considered mere approximations, very different versions of reality are not always seen on a truth/lie scale. In those cultures, however, selfishness and covetousness are already matters of great concern. Is there any biblical ground for labeling these fundamental human weaknesses as sin? There most assuredly is such a basis. Then we can all agree that selfishness and covetousness are indeed evil. And we can point out how God looks upon these evils and deals with them.
The missionary does well to answer problems posed, but not answered, in the false systems. When problems of an other-worldly nature were put to Confucius, he answered very matter-of-factly that he hardly understood this world and should not be expected to know about another world. On the basis of their own worldview, Marxist Communists are hard-pressed to give a satisfactory answer as to why extreme sacrifices should be made by the present generation for the generations yet unborn. Many Hindus must recoil in utter despair when faced with the seemingly numberless existences required to effect their final emancipation from the wheel of existence. Christ has real answers for these problems if only His ambassadors will deliver them.
Adaptation also requires that we answer objections that respondents can be expected to raise vis-a-vis the Christian message. The literature of Nichiren Buddhism, for example, makes much of the point that a person who knows the truth will die peacefully and with happiness apparent in facial expressions. That Christ died on a cross while repeating the words of Psalm 22 in an anguished cry, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46) causes these Buddhists to question whether Christ Himself knew the truth. A brief apologetic before the problem is articulated will go far to disarm the objector.
Finally, the missionary should also be alert to watch for special entry points to these non-Christian systems. For example, Confucius said:
"A holy man I shall not live to see; enough could I find a gentle-man! A good man I shall not live to see; enough could I find a steadfast one! But when nothing poses as something, cloud as substance, want as riches, steadfastness must be rare."1Lao-tze said that "he who bears the sins of the world is fit to rule the world." Such quotations furnish the Christian communicator with communication opportunities that should not be overlooked.
4. Application. As is the case in all communication, the missionary message becomes most compelling when it ceases to be general and becomes personal. In the final analysis we are not speaking to worldviews but to the minds and hearts of people of flesh and blood who live out these worldviews in their decisions and actions. Can we make the message of Christ compelling to them? We can and we must. It is in application that we say, "You are the man" (2 Samuel 12:7).
Of course, ultimately the Holy Spirit must apply the Word. Geoffrey Bull illustrates that by telling the story of a Tibetan Buddhist military governor who refused to be moved by the most obvious refutation of his own faith.
I was surprised how even a man like the Dege Sey believed in reincarnation. There was rather an amusing incident. He was saying to me how they had to be very careful, for even one of the domestic animals might be his grandmother. I was about to make some mildly humorous comment as to the general treatment of dogs in Tibet, when the words were taken out of my mouth and far more eloquent sounds fell on our ears. From the courtyard came the piercing squeals of some pitiful canine, which had just been either kicked or battered with a brick bat. The Dege Sey, generally quick to see a joke, sat quite unmoved. Incarnation as a doctrine itself is readily accepted by the Tibetans, but when we assert there is but one incarnation of the Living and True God, "The Word made flesh," it is totally unacceptable to them.
-- When Iron Gates Yield, originally published by Hodder & Stoughton, 1955. Moody Press edition, p. 99
If application is a function of knowledge, it is also a function of faith. It is not according to the usual bent of human nature to admit that one is wrong or to agree with God that we are sinners -- especially helpless sinners whose only hope is in divine grace. When God's truth is faithfully and lovingly applied, however, there will be a response throughout Adam's race if that truth is presented intelligently and in dependence upon the Spirit.
A "contextualized content" requires the accompaniment of a "contextualized style." Style can best be thought of as the personal imprint of the source upon the message. Its ingredients vary with the communication code, whether linguistic or nonlinguistic, and therefore we can speak of style as it relates to sermons, lectures, magazine articles, books, drawings, or films and even to the way in which people live out their Christian faith before others. Style can be studied in relation to the source, message, code, and respondents. It should be evaluated as to correctness, clarity, and appropriateness. Style is that part of missionary communication in which the source's understanding of his respondent culture, his powers of imagination, and his skill in the manipulation of symbols are given most reign and can be put to great service for the Kingdom. At the same time, a style that is out of keeping with the respondent culture does the Kingdom a disservice.
Think for a moment of the respondent culture I know best: Japanese. To contemporary Japanese, much missionary communication (as reflected not only by missionaries but by Japanese pastors and workers who have simply duplicated Western patterns) must seem to exhibit a great lack of style, though it is not so much a lack of style as a foreignness of style that is at the root of the problem. There are numerous colorings of the Judeo-Christian worldview as it has come through the Western filter that stamps missionary communication as un-Japanese. Some of these colorings include directness, brusqueness, matter-of-factness, lack of awe or a sense of mystery, oversimplification, narrow scope of interest, aloofness from everyday concerns, and insensitivity to the feelings of the audience.
On the other hand, the missionary to Japan who by his demeanor and speech communicates the greatness and holiness of God, a deep appreciation for the beauty of God's world, and the mystery of Christian teachings such as the Trinity, the incarnation and the atonement will find that his audience will be much more "at home" with his message.
The Christian message is, indeed, abiding and universal. It is for all people of every time in history and of every culture on earth. But the cultural contexts in which God revealed it and to which the missionary delivers it are all distinct and different. They cannot be superimposed upon one another. If Christian meaning is not to be lost in the communication process, contextualization is required.
1The Sayings of Confucius. The Harvard Classics. 1909-14. VII, 24.
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