What Cognitive Science Teaches about Contextualization

“Cognitive science” and “contextualization” –– two things that sound complicated but shape everything we do in ministry.Frame Mountain (Mick Garrett, http:::www.geograph.org.uk:profile:343) CC licence

In  Theology in the Flesh, John Sanders explains the concept of “framing” with this sentence: “We never open our presents until the morning.” For most Americans, at least, those eight words make complete sense because they evoke a common “frame,” i.e. Christmas. Families have different traditions about when they open their gifts.

For more common yet frustrating examples, contrast how MSNBC and Fox News report the same story. Both websites “spin” their headlines by “framing” their stories in ways that conjure emotions and images that benefit their political perspective.

“Frames” include “words and phrases, but also pictures and gestures [that] trigger a setting of scenario, which brings to mind a particular meaning” (p. 38).

Everyday phrases like “He struck out” and “He scored” evoke sports frames. “The Promised Land” and “Babel” bring specific biblical narratives to mind. Frames provide the cognitive context that helps people make sense of information, hence “breakfast” etc. draws up an assortment of related concepts.

The Framing Effect

Sanders cites multiple studies that illustrate the powerful effect of framing (though usually going unnoticed). Below are my two favorite examples.

Example One: Crime

One study involved selected conceptual metaphors to see what impact they had in people’s reasoning about what to do about crime. Each set of participants were given identical information and statistics about crime in a city. The only difference in the reports was the subtle use of terms framing crime as either a virus or a beast. Those who read the report containing the virus metaphor decided the appropriate action was to cure the city by means of social programs, while those who read the report using the beast metaphor said that criminals should be tracked down and caged. Both groups claimed that their conclusions were shaped by the statistics and explicitly denied that their thinking was shaped by the metaphors. (p. 144)

Example Two: Immigration

An experiment on metaphorical framing had participants read historical reports on domestic issues in America, with the only difference being that one group received a report that contained the metaphor of the Nation Is A Body. Immigration was not one of the issues discussed in the report, but participants were asked about immigration in the questionnaire. Those who read the report in which the nation was understood as a physical body held noticeably more negative views toward immigration than those who read the report without the body metaphor. (p. 145)

We all use metaphors and frames to discuss complex ideas. This is a point Sanders reemphasizes again and again. Human cognition is based on embodied experience.

How do you “frame” the gospel?

Sanders rightly states, “Sometimes, a frame existing in one culture is entirely lacking in another” (p. 40). Even similar concepts can have significant differences that should not be confused. Sanders uses “slavery” as an example. When Americans typical hear “slavery,” they think of an institution very different from slavery in the ancient Roman world.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons CC 3.0

Credit: Wikimedia Commons CC 3.0

Naturally, understanding “frames” is critical for contextualization, i.e. the process by which we interpret, communicate, and apply the Bible’s teaching. From the moment we read Scripture, we begin the process of contextualization.

However, typical evangelistic methods and biblical training ignore the importance of “frames.” Too many people assume that the legal (juridical) metaphor is the primary image for explaining sin and salvation. Countless other ways of images are overlooked or minimized. As a result, few discuss “Western theology”; instead, they just say “theology” (as though we only need add the modifier when speaking of “Chinese theology” or “African theology).

These observations explain why distinguishing “framework themes” and “explanation themes” is so critically important. For more on this, click here, here, or just see One Gospel for All Nations.

Is the gospel culturally meaningful?

Frames are efficient shortcuts our minds use to make cognition and communication possible. The frames we use will affect both our interpretation and our communication. Rather than think we can be “objective,” we need to own the fact that any and every frame has advantages and disadvantages, opportunities and limitations.

Sander says,

If the speaker and the audience share the frame, then there is no need to articulate all that is included in the scenario; the speaker simply has to activate the frame and the mind of the listener fills in the rest. This means that the notion that all the meaning resides in the text is false. (p. 40)

The last line will cause some people to worry. In my previous post, I cite multiple pages where Sanders rejects absolute relativism (pp. 8, 24–25).

Truth exists but we can only grasp its meaning or significance with our minds (i.e. via cognition). This is Sanders’ point. We can present the true gospel but do so in a way that is not culturally meaningful for those who hear the message.

At best, we have a relative perspective on absolute truth.

Credit for frame image: Mick Garratt, Creative Commons Licence.