The second essay in MissionShift is entitled, “The Gospel in Human Contexts: Changing Perceptions of Contextualization.” It is by the missionary statesman Paul Hiebert, who shortly after the writing of this essay passed from mission to glory. I was first introduced to Hiebert back in college in the late 80’s. When I discovered him, I thought him to be one of the best writing missiologists that I ever read. My opinion has changed little since then, so don’t expect a “hostile” critique…nor perhaps even an objective one (if such a thing were possible). Moreover, one of the critiquers was a missions professor of mine in the early 90’s (Darrell Whiteman)…nevertheless, though I might not be completely unbiased, I do think both of those men have something to say in this section.
To summarize Hiebert’s article it is important to understand just how much our culture shapes our understanding of the Gospel and of the Church. Christianity, unlike Islam for instance, believes that each culture has good within it (as well as bad) and that that which is good should be used to communicate the Good News. As a result, from the early days of the church…liturgies, scriptures, etc. have all been translated into local languages, but that translation goes even deeper at points when people think deeply about the forms of church and how the Gospel should best be presented in a culture. In translation, the goal (at least for many of us translators) is dynamic-equivalence…seeking to get the same impact as the original readers would have had…while staying as true to the original as possible. In “contextualization” the forms of church, how one should pray (standing, sitting, bowing, eyes closed, eyes opened, etc.), be baptized, take communion, etc…are “translated”. Of course, how they should be translated and what forms can be used and which cannot be…remain very much debated issues.
Hiebert surveys three approaches to contextualization. The first approach is minimal contextualization. This can be seen in the country where I work in…culturally there are many thinks that are different between the country where I am in now and the country I came from. However, language aside, I can be perfectly comfortable on a Sunday by going to virtually any church and pretty much knowing that there will be pews (or at least benches), songs song from a hymnal, an offering will be taken, and then the sermon will be preached, after which we all go home to eat lunch. Apart from the fact that I won’t be going to Beefcarver, it seems pretty similar to my childhood.
Another approach to contextualization, on the opposite extreme, is uncritical contextualization. If the previous approach holds on to one’s original forms too tightly, then this approach holds on to them far too loosely, to the point where nothing is “sacred.” Evangelical missionaries tend to error on the side of the first approach far more than the second due to their “love of the truth”, but both can be equally deadly to the life of a vibrant indigenous church which is surely what God desires.
The third way, and obviously the way that Hiebert advocates, is critical contextualization. Apart from Geisler, all of the respondents realize the need for this approach. The question isn’t that critical contextualization is what needs to be done, rather the question will always be…is it be done correctly.
I remember in a class called “The Indigenous Church” Darrell Whiteman drilled into us that the question isn’t “where do we draw the line?” i.e. there is no line between critical contextualization and syncretism…not if you are focused on the form and meaning. Unfortunately, real life isn’t quite as clean as the classroom setting and it isn’t always clear how the form can be separated from the meaning. For instance, I was enjoying fellowship with a group of Muslim men yesterday. I was wearing traditional African clothes normally worn by Muslims, I was sitting on mats (not on a chair) and eating around a shared dish (i.e. not with my own private dish)…in other words, I was entering into their culture as much as I could…and at one point, one of them said to me that I lacked just one more thing to be complete…I needed to pray with them. What that meant of course was that I needed to recite the afternoon Islamic ritual prayer with them. Now I know that this is debated in certain missiological circles…moreover, Whiteman would encourage Muslim followers of Jesus to do just that, however, in my context it is always assumed, due to the color of my skin, that I am a Christian. If I were to pray the ritual prayer with them, it would not be seen as anything but a conversion…I would go from being a Christian who fellowships with them to being a fellow Muslim. Perhaps some will say that I should do that in order to completely identify with them, but for me that would be uncritical contextualization because I cannot see how I could give Christian meaning to that form.
Moreover, I might defer slightly from Whiteman in my view of the place for C5 contextualization (C5 refers to a continuum of contextualization ranging from little to none (C1) to insider movements (C5) where, for instance, new believers would be encouraged to stay within their communities as much as possible keeping their original identities (i.e.. Muslim) but adding to it their allegiance to Christ.). In my mind, C5 has a critical role to play in the initial people movement (witness the Early Church for example still going to the temple), but eventually those outside the movement will force those at C5 to eventually retreat to C4. This doesn’t nullify though the important role it does play for as long as it does. Indeed, I cannot see how a people movement among the people I work with would be possible in any other way than C5…nevertheless I recognize that the days of remaining at that level are numbered (as it was for the early Jewish believers).
One thing that I need to reflect on more, as a result of reading Hiebert’s essay is his discussion of Peircian semiotics. I have long been familiar with the dichotomy of form/meaning and have often felt that it didn’t completely describe reality. Peirce’s triadic way of looking at things is an intriguing approach. He sees each thing as made up of 1) the Sign (a spoken or written word), 2) the Signified (the mental image of that thing), 3) the Significatum (the reality to which it refers). This approach allows for there being a link to objective reality…it might also argue that there are some forms so intricately linked to a demonic reality that they can’t be used with a different meaning (although that decision properly belongs to the believing community and not the outsider (i.e. missionary).
In all, it was very worthwhile to read Hiebert’s essay and all of the respondents (even Geisler…if for no other reason, to see the concerns of those outside missiological studies).