by Paul Kazim
Missionaries trained in US schools are generally Christian Modernists. It would be a mistake to assume that the national students we teach view life according to these tenets of modernism. This often produces frustration, both to the teacher and to the student. To understand the difference between a modernist viewpoint and a pre-modern viewpoint consider how people in different cultures wonder about the source of an illness. The modernist asks, what was the cause of my fever? The answer is scientific. A mosquito transmitted the dengue virus when it bit me and my illness is a random event. A pre-modern asks why did the infected mosquito bite me? Why not my neighbor? Why not an uninfected mosquito? Nothing random about it. Could it have been a spirit? A curse? Even a member of a pre-modern society trained in the methods of modern medicine and who knows that the infection was passed by a mosquito bite, will often ask for the answer to the “why” question.
Each area of the Latin America in which we teach in has its own worldview. Despite the significant changes of the past 50 years, it would be wrong to assume that the LAC worldview has dramatically changed and that our students are somehow now modernists. It would also be anachronistic to assert that the Apostle Paul was a modernist. So we have a pre-modern book and many of our students are pre-moderns, and we attempt to teach them as if our assumptions were theirs.
Our attempt to turn pre-moderns (or at least those who have accepted the trappings of modernism, while maintaining their pre-modern assumptions) into Europeans theologians is a doomed program. A small number of students will bend to the professor’s wishes, but most will be happy to get the grade and move on to Theology 2. And the educator will wonder why his or her excellent teaching has little practical affect.
To further complicate the situation, the modern world is abandoning its worldview and post-modernism is taking its place. One of the consequences post-modernism is that we lack confidence in the objectivity of our research, realizing that every bit of research is infected with our preconceived notions. It becomes harder to be confident in the results of our study. This is a double-edged sword. The doubt that it can produce can destroy faith. However, a positive consequence of post-modern theory is that we are forced to be humble with the results of our study. While a Christian will continue to affirm that the Biblical text has an inspired meaning, he or she is left with no option but to say that no one point of view entirely reflects the meaning of a text. This is not a denial of meaning. God spoke. He knew what He wanted to say. However, the consequence is that without collaboration, we will never fully grasp the inspired message.
What follows is my attempt to explain in more detail why I believe this is crucial. We need each other. The US missionary teacher needs the perspective of her pre-modern students.
Contextualization and Meaning
One of the most significant things Jesus did was contextualize the message that God wanted to communicate. He contextualized so well that many did not recognize His uniqueness and thought that He was merely the latest in the line of Old Testament prophets. The disciples of Jesus and Paul took the core of biblical teaching as delivered by Christ and created expressions of local theology. The emphasis of each New Testament (NT) document reflects the local realities of those who received the epistle or sermon. Diversity in the NT is not necessarily the result of a developing theology as much as it is the response to a variety of cultural contexts.
The Epistles affirm that the gospel can take on new forms and shapes as it is born in new contexts. The gospel is not a plant with the newfound ability to grow in foreign soil; rather, the gospel is a hybrid seed that can grow and flourish in every new climate (Van Engen 2005, 188-92). Successful enculturation occurs when the gospel and the church no longer seem foreign to a receiving culture. As a result, all languages and cultures are capable of expressing what the Word of God teaches. Each culture should have a say in what Christianity teaches. All this points to the following: the same God creates all humans, Jesus Christ addresses all equally, and the Holy Spirit enables all to understand the gospel in their own language (Van Engen 2005, 193).
Each local expression of the church reflexively adapts the biblical message to its surroundings. Everyone contextualizes, but hardly anyone is aware that he or she does so. People will eventually find an answer to what they really want to know. The questions are the product of the environment. There is no guarantee that the missionary’s new culture will have the same questions as the culture he or she has left. This is the cause of another frustration.
The purpose of a contextual reading of Scripture is not to invent something new. Its purpose is to produce biblical answers to local concerns. For example, our theology texts do not deal with the issue of polygamy, but in Africa it would be wrong to omit it. Many attempts at contextualization fail at this point. In the Western context this must be more than the answer to the guitar-organ debate. The goal is knowledge of God that is relevant to the current realities in a specific place.
It is inevitable that each new congregation (and national church) approaches Scripture out of its own experience and cultural assumptions. Reception of the gospel does not render a community a blank slate to be filled with the missionary’s cultural preferences. Each group will look to Scripture for new answers to the primordial questions that their home culture asked. The new answers depend on the questions the local church asks. As different as Missouri culture is from California culture, it is not a surprise that the churches of each state emphasize different aspects of the gospel core.
Taken to its logical conclusion, this idea seems to say that there are as many contextualizations as there are contextualizers. One culture’s lack of objectivity makes inter-cultural reading a necessity. Mono-cultural reading can never attain the goal of the plain meaning of a text. The doctrine of biblical inspiration requires that when God made himself known, He had a purpose. Understanding that purpose is the goal toward which all interpretation strives, but to which no one cultural vantage point can arrive. One culture’s inability to arrive at this goal does not deny the goal’s existence. It often reflects the culture’s lack of the appropriate symbolic language. The solution to this requires inter-cultural reading and the ability to listen to differing viewpoints.
All Christians are theologians. The only question is whether the theology constructed accurately reflects biblical teaching. In order to contextualize the gospel core without misrepresenting the message, those who think theologically must be more aware of personal and cultural bias. They must be willing to critique their own thoughts and to deliberate their findings with those of others. It is often the case that we can only begin to see our bias when confronted with the interpretative conclusions of another person, denomination, or culture. We need each other.
Therefore, all theology should be a community project: “While theology is always personal, it is never private. Do-it-yourself theology is certainly possible but it should never be do-it-by yourself theology” (Bevans 2004, 48-49). Since every time the receiving culture in the Bible changed a new theological response was required, the process of theologizing never ends. At best, today’s answer only approximates the final answer. The only real heresy is getting the answer wrong in isolation (Bevans 2009, 41).
So in conclusion, often our frustration with students who “just don´t get it” is the product of our inability to recognize that God speaks to all believers from within their own cultural prison. We are equally biased, and equally unable to see the whole picture. Can our students teach us? Can we learn from pastors who are not from our culture? Even if we cannot it behooves us to listen to their observations and theological musings. We just might be missing something.
Pre-modern, modern and post-modern are used without value judgment in this article. Our modern assumption is that modern mean progress. This is evidence of our bias.
An excellent treatment of these questions is The Universe Next Door by James Sire
Lingenfelte, Transforming Culture p.16. Also of great value would be Paul Hiebert’s The Flaw of the Excluded Middle.