Friday, July 5, 2013

Enculturated Gospel: Get Used to It

If we could just get this culture question nailed down....

..."it is part of my faith in the authenticity of the [Gospel] story itself that this community [of faith in Christ] will not be finally betrayed. The gates of hell shall not prevail against it. But where something else is put at the center, a moral code, a set of principles, or the alleged need to meet some criterion imposed from outside the story, one is adrift in the ever-changing tides of history, and the community which commits itself to these things becomes one more piece of driftwood on the current."
--Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998), Bp. of Madras of the Church of South India, and 40-year missionary to India, in his seminal book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p.148, 1990 edition

Bp. Newbigin lived a lifetime in a culture very different from ours and his own, and he was preeminent in his understanding of how much of the Bible is "enculturated", and therefore generally not binding on cultures outside of the original biblical cultures out of which it arose, but also "universal" and therefore an immovable part of the the formulation that represents "true Gospel". He contends that there is no such thing as a "pure Gospel" outside of the cultural context from which it came, nor into which it is being spoken.

An understanding of this helps to explain why some of the Hebraic moral code no longer applies to us today (dietary laws, the sabbath and the inclusionary demands of circumcision, for example) while others do (consider the poor, love thy neighbor, seek justice). Simply put, he came to learn that cultural context differs around the world, and it is a mistake to try to impose the moral code of one culture onto another culture and mistake that for "Christian obedience" or "Gospel imperative" (See African Anglicans imposing moral code on US society, and vice versa.) He says that the Gospel story is more adaptable than that, and is basically adaptable to all cultures within their own context. Failure to recognize and utilize this flexibility in mission is to replace the Gospel with moral law or political program--or a combination of the two.

It is instead as simple as this: The Bible (the story), the sacraments (baptism and eucharist) and the apostolic ministry ("as the Father sent me, so I send you" and "Follow me.") adapted to local cultural context.

By contrast, he points to the inflexiblity of Islam. "God's will as it is communicated in the untranslatable Arabic of the Qur'an is that to which every human society must conform." In fact, Newbigin writes, there can be no translations of the Qur'an, because any translation would be a cultural adaptaion, which is forbidden (p. 145). I have always contended that if you want to apply the myth that we are a "Christian nation" (and by that most people who proclaim that mean to recover a legally-imposed dimly-understood version of the biblical moral code to society--perhaps like that invoked by the Puritans in Massachusetts), what you are unwittingly asking for is to be placed under the yoke of Sharia Law (I don't know many people who would want THAT if they were to think through the implications). In fact, what the pluralistic Founding Fathers (some were Anglican, some were Deists, some were Presbyterians, some were Quakers, some were none of the above) envisioned and provided for was a basic societal freedom and structure with enough moral and religious flexibility to protect the "dignity of every human being" and to "strive for justice and peace among all people" (BCP p. 305).

Newbigin asks the question, "What is the culture in which I find myself? What are the conditions under which I will be able to say that I have truly communicated the Gospel to this culture? When can I say, "Mission accomplished?" We could respond as captives to our particular worldview and attempt to apply value and code as the Judaizers did to the Galatians. Or we could go so far the other way as to leave the culture unchallenged by the radical claims of Jesus that to be His follower means to be transformed. But to be transformed into what?

Our culture is changing rapidly. We live in a pluralistic society. I do not believe that we need to ask, "How can the church be relevant?" Instead, I think the question is, "Will we be faithful to the story of the God who, in submitting to our death,  gave us life?" Now is not the time to push agendas from either direction. Now is the time to be Jesus in the world; loving, unjudging, peaceful, patient, gracious, and willing to die--not FOR Him, as Peter mistakenly promised--but TO ourselves, and ON BEHALF of those even who 1) do not understand us 2) hate us and 3) disagree with us.

Desert Father John the Persian, who, upon learning that malefactors had entered his hut to kill him, got up to fetch a basin to wash their feet, as he would for his best friends. Embarrassed, they left him alone. But this same John the Persian, so radical in his Christ-like virtues, would not fit well into our culture without some adaptation. He tells this story: A demoniac boy once came to be healed, and some brothers from an Egyptian monastery arrived. As one old man was coming out to meet them he saw a brother "sinning" with the boy, but he did not accuse him; he said, "If God who has made them sees them and does not burn them, who am I to judge?" In favor of radical nonjudgementalism, today he would have violated one of our most expensively-learned modern lessons--when you see the sexual abuse of a young person going on, you are morally obligated to speak up, alert the authorities, and see that the boy receives protection, even if he was in "consent". John the Persian, in his choice to be nonjudgemental, could well be arrested for negligence today! So "nonjudgementalism" imposed as a value disconnected from cultural context, can be a mistake. But judgementalism, imposed as a value from another cultural context (stoning, for instance), can be just as ungodly an error.

The Gospel in every culture is lived out within the context of that culture. Patience and wisdom on the part of the church, as well as detachment from agenda, as much as that is humanly possible, are indispensable, and yet rare. Some segments of the church are on a hair-trigger to dispense judgement. In their case, they should remember that the laws of the land prevail, and will mete judgement soon enough. Other segments of the church seem only too willing to disregard established cultural norms in favor of the emerging "new normal" in the midst of change. In their case, they should remember that the laws of the land prevail, and will mete GRACE soon enough. Patience and wisdom, as well as detachment from agenda, as much as is humanly possible, are indispensable, yet rare. But if we could maintain unity in the midst of change, there's a chance. Alas, here is my naivete. Someone's going to get crucified.

Let's end with this quote from Bp. Newbigin's book: "There is a longing for unity among all human beings, for unity offers the promise of peace. The problem is that we want unity on our terms, and it is our rival programs for unity which tear us apart. As Augustine said, 'All wars are fought for the sake of peace.' The history of the world could be told as the story of successive efforts to bring unity to the world, and of course the name we give to those efforts is 'imperialism'. The Christian Gospel has sometimes been made the tool of an imperialism, and of that we have to repent. But at its heart it is the denial of all imperialisms, for at its center there is the cross, where all imperialisms are humbled and we are invited to find the center of human unity in the One who was made  nothing so that all might be one. The very heart of the biblical vision for the unity of mankind is not an imperial power, but the slain Lamb."
                          --The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 159

The Gospel is always enculturated, but it need not be encumbered. Lord, guide us into all truth, for the sake of those who need to hear You, and not just projections of our inner selves.
     Chris Huff


  1. When Paul was in Greece, he saw an altar with the inscription “to the unknown God.” He then told the Athenians that this was the God that made the world and everything in it. Paul then went on to preach the Gospel. Paul enculturated the Gospel, he did not compromise it. Some were persuaded, while some were not. It is important to note that Paul explained the Gospel in their context; he did not change the Gospel to meet their context.

    There is no escaping the fact that there is a moral code. We actually can use this to help prove that there is a God. The Bible tells us to put away certain behaviors and also to put on certain behaviors (attributes); however, the rub comes when we make this into a legalistic endeavor and forget about the grace of God. But, the grace of God does not give us permission to change what He already said in His Word. We understand that as we mature in Christ the things we are to “put on” will become more prominent in our lives and the things we are to “put away” will start falling off. Thank God we are saved by his Grace.

    When we enculturate the Gospel, we have to be careful that we do not change God’s word. The moral code has not changed (it doesn’t matter what culture you are in). It is very tempting to change a part of God’s word when pressured by various groups. All this does is remove sin-guilt and does not let the people within whatever group fully mature in Christ. The issue becomes the sin that a particular group wants to eradicate from what God has already spoken. We always have to use God’s word as the screening device for anything “new” that is proposed or considered.

  2. God is always about making things new. The foundation is always love. He is more than and utterly beyond words. Biblolotry is but one more form of idolotry. But so subtle and insidious, safe and acceptable, it masqurades as piety and virtue. God is so much grittier and robust than that. Praise be to Him. And it is sorrowfully true, someone always gets crucified for that kind of talk.

  3. This article about teachings of Rabbi Avraham Kook was interesting and I saw some similiarities to this discussion. The bit about distinctiveness versus complete separation I found very applicable. The contrast of the religious and secular Jew along with religious Jews "delegitimizing" the secular Jew remind me of Christians accusing each other of not defending the Bible or watering down the faith. I like how he said that for the "higher" or "holy" side: "The solidarity and sense of responsibility remains."

    Other Rabbi Kook articles: