Contextualization

October 12, 2011 — 3 Comments

[This post is part of the Ethics of Contextualization series]

Before looking into some issues related to contextualization, it just might be helpful to clarify what I mean by the term. Though I won’t engage them directly, you might peruse the posts with the label “contextualization” over at the Pyromaniac’s blog. I read that blog regularly and was directed to them as an example of someone against contextualization in a footnote in Darrin Patrick’s Church Planter. The essence of that post (which is a bit dated) was an objection to a type of contextualization in which “something other than the biblical context should be the starting point for our understanding or application of spiritual truth.”  The author, Phil Johnson, maintained that the biblical context is far more relevant than the cultural context. He concludes:

What both sides of the Emergent/emerging divide do agree on (in practice if not in precept) is that the application of spiritual truth should begin with the contemporary cultural context, not the biblical context. That’s precisely where I think the idea of missiological contextualization went astray, and it happened at the very start.

While I would agree with this critique, I don’t know anyone (in young, restless Reformed circles) who teaches this. Instead, when they talk about contextualization, they say things like this:

Contextualization is the church’s gospel-response to culture. It is simply the taking of the unchanging gospel into an oft-changing culture by restating the meaning of the gospel in a way that is comprehendible [sic] to those who are hearing the gospel (Church Planter, 193).

Contextualization is about making the church as culturally accessible as possible without compromising the truth of Christian belief. In this, what is sought is timeless truth and timely methods. In other words, contextualization is not making the gospel relevant, but showing the relevance of the gospel (Vintage Church, 228).

Contextualization is the communication of the gospel in a particular place, time, and culture, to a particular people, in a way that it can be understood without diluting its truth (Community, 107).

Though not stated explicitly, each of these quotes assumes the person doing the contextualization is starting with the biblical context. In other words, it is assumed that biblical context and content that clarify the gospel is understood before any attempted contextualization to a particular culture. Like I mentioned in the opening post, everyone who preaches the gospel does this to some extent. Choosing to preach in English rather than Greek is a contextualization choice. Beyond that, as soon as you consider your audience in any way, you’ve begun contextualizing to some extent.

As an example of that, this past weekend in youth group, I was trying to explain the nature of the tax collector in Mark 2:13ff. I started by clarifying my understanding of tax collectors in the biblical context, then thought about what teenagers in my cultural context would understand. I landed on comparing tax collectors to Americans who choose to join Al-Qaeda after it theoretically took over our country. That, in my mind, is a prime example of an illustration that is contextualizing elements of the biblical story so they can be better understood by the culture you’re talking to.

The issue that I think most people with contextualization is not this. Everyone (at least I think everyone) realizes this much is necessary. The issue that many have, as expressed by Phil Johnson in the above mentioned post is:

when considering our own contemporary cultural context, we need to make honest and biblically-informed assessments about what’s compatible (or not) with timeless biblical principles—rather than uncritically embracing the ephemeral icons of popular culture.

And there’s the rub. To illustrate, suppose in the above example with the youth group, instead of using the cultural explanation of Al-Qaeda, I used a reference from the cartoon South Park. I am doing the same thing in both cases, but in the latter, I am using what many people would consider a questionable cultural icon. Now, what if for a fact I knew that every kid in the youth group was thoroughly familiar with South Park (I doubt that is true). Wouldn’t that make it a good idea to help illuminate the radical actions of Jesus with the tax collectors in Mark 2?

This brings up the real issue, which is not whether or not you’ll contextualize your message, but rather, how do you determine what contexts might be inappropriate for use in illuminating your message. Even if all the kids in the youth group loved South Park, does that automatically make it an ok context for me to use to shed light on the teachings of Scripture? Or might it still be wrong regardless and I should pick a better illustration, not one that is a-cultural (since there aren’t any) but one that is not using possibly objectionable elements from the culture.

Mark Driscoll talks often of either receiving, rejecting, or redeeming the aspects of culture we come in contact with. As explained in Community (p. 130-131):

  • We can receive many aspects of culture that are not in opposition to the truth of Scripture
  • We should reject some aspects of culture that are naturally opposed to the gospel
  • We can redeem some aspects of culture that may be innocuous but have been perverted by sin.

While I think this is a helpful rubric, it still raises a couple of questions. First, how do we determine what aspects are innocuous and can be redeemed, and which ones are diametrically opposed to the gospel and can’t? Second, in what way can a cultural icon actually be redeemed?

This is what I want to explore in this series, and we’ll start tomorrow with that latter question and an example that I think aptly contextualizes the problem. Again, I’m open to further suggestions for topics to deal with, but I think you’ll find the one tomorrow particularly illuminating.

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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