Honest Answers to Honest Questions

What is perhaps most remarkable about the Christian faith is how adaptable and resilient it is. Think about this set of factors: the Story of God’s presence in an ancient people (Israelites) took on a different life with the Man from Galilee (Jesus) whose life and death and resurrection became the core of a Roman-Jew (Paul) which in twenty centuries had struck root in the soils of every continent and in the depths of most cultures.

Now the noteworthy feature is that while the gospel is the message that gospel, even with Paul and James and Peter and the author of Hebrews and John, found expression in new ways in new days because it was capable to being adapted. There are of course dangers here: one can so adapt the message that it becomes culture instead of message; or one can become so rigidly tied to one set of categories that the message becomes so disconnected from a culture that it no longer makes sense. Most gospeling occurs along a spectrum between the two.

What are the major elements of “contextualizing”? How does it happen naturally? What have you learned? What is a good example of contextualizing?

How does this occur? How do we “contextualize” the Christian message? This is the subject of Tim Keller’s 10th chp in his book Center Church. He proposes that fidelity to the gospel means three phases of “contextualization” take place. Tim Keller has thought about this process in a pastoral context as much as anyone, and his wisdom about what is involved is expressed in this big idea: contextualizing must be about “honest answers to honest questions” if it is going to take root in our culture. Here are his three:

1. Entering the culture. The secret to entering the culture is to listen to the culture: to spend time with others, to talk with others, to get to know others, to hear its passions and problems … deep enough to know the culture. Tim Keller learned this in part by getting feedback from his sermons, and while he didn’t emphasize this I believe it is the most important thing I have experienced as a professor and perhaps one of the biggest lacks in pastoral work: professors get evaluated every class and this leads us to deeper perceptions of our gifts and of our weaknesses and of how people are hearing us. Pastors could benefit from this. Keller did this informally by meeting with people and listening to their feedback.

He thinks we need to see that our audiences operate with different “conceptualities”: some people derive conclusions from logic and evidence; others are more concrete and relational and pragmatic; and yet others are intuitional — insight and experience and stories.

He makes an important distinction here that I’ve not heard: he distinguishes A beliefs from B beliefs in a culture. The A beliefs are common grace, natural revelation, etc, beliefs shared by humans; B beliefs are defeater beliefs; beliefs that lead to the implausibility of the Christian faith.

Big one: if you listen well, you can find the honest questions. If you don’t listen well, you will only hear what you have answers for.

2. Challenging the culture. Keller’s major idea here is to learn to use A beliefs to challenge B beliefs. “If you believe A (which is true and Christian and biblical), why do you believe B (which is not)?” That is, “with the authority of the Bible we allow one part of the culture — along with the Bible — to critique another part” (125). He uses two illustrations, one from Korean women who struggled to know that God loved them but who grasped God’s grace through the sovereign king’s election and predestination; and other from CS Lewis who argued from the meaning of love to a God of love.

But one of Keller’s best themes in his ministry is sin as idolatry. Sin is making something God that is not truly God, and how this approach to sin through idolatry can be shaped by appealing to human freedom.  Other areas to challenge our culture include the commodification of sex in the sexual freedom revolution; the problem of human rights necessitating a view of God and justice; and a culture that has lost hope (here he refers to the fine book by Andrew Delbanco, The Real American Dream).

3. Appealing to the culture. Big idea: learn to tell our culture’s story inside the Jesus Story. He uses four “atonement grammars”, at the core of which is substitution though as I read him here it is as much vicarious (one person doing something for another): the language of the battlefield, the language of the marketplace, the language of exile, the language of the temple, and the language of the law court. That is, defeat of powers and systemic injustice, freedom from slavery, coming hoe, being clean and beautiful, and the end of guilt and being right with God and others.

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  • Scott Gay

    This deserves more than a chapter.

  • ‘if you listen well, you can find the honest questions. If you don’t listen well, you will only hear what you have answers for.”

    Love this quote. I’ve both been on the receiving end of someone “not listening well” and done it myself.

  • scotmcknight

    Scott Gay; he’s got several chps on contextualizing and this is the last one. I sketched some of it already.

  • “Learn to tell the Culture’s story inside of the Jesus Story”

    I’ve thought about this a lot lately, except in my mind I phrase it as, “Discern how the culture’s story fits within the Jesus Story, then learn to tell the Jesus Story within the Culture’s story.

    I often ponder, if Jesus was born into my neighborhood today, how would he speak/manifest the same eternal word of God? Who would he disuade the crowd from stoning? What temple would he cleanse? Who would be our samaritans, our Caesars, our slaves, our Pharisees? What form would his parables take so that they still speak the Truth of the Kingdom? To what Gods are we enslaved, to whom do we endlessly sacrifice, hoping that it will bring peace from our modern anxieties? Who would fail to recognize Jesus and crucify him for daring to upset the religious status quo?

    I feel like much if our evangelism today depends on first replacing our culture with that of ancient Israel. We work so hard to convert people to a westernized ancient near eastern worldview so that the gospel makes sense to them, that we are essentially trying to drag them into the Jesus story instead of incarnating Jesus within their story.

    I don’t think our culture needs to be “critiqued” so much as humbly entered into and understood. 100% agree that good listening is essential. When we do that, I think we’ll realize that all of humanity for all time is perpetually asking the same questions and searching for the same thing.

    At some point we have to realize that knowing the Truth, for people today, can’t depend on convincing them that something happened 2000 years ago. To be known, Christ must come again today–and He will–IF we are willing to follow in Christ’s footsteps, crosses on our backs.

  • Percival

    This is a lot to consider.
    About story. I think that we don’t need to tell the culture’s story inside the story. I think we need to use the culture’s characters to tell the Story. Maybe that’s what Keller meant anyway.

    Jesus did this with his parables. He started with the familiar characters and settings and then changed the stories so that the values and assumptions of the culture were challenged and debunked. One gets the feeling that those who listened to Jesus followed the story happily as it went along until a point when he completely went against how the story was supposed to go. Then, whether they wanted to or not, they had to finish the trip. This doesn’t often happen with A belief vs. B belief discussions. Often the listener can easily accept both A and B for reasons of extenuating circumstances or life realities or personal rationalizations. However, a story is more subversive. How does one disagree with a story? You can dismiss it as pointless or hard to swallow or repulsive, but the nature of story is that it is a whole thing, not a series of logical steps or reasonable thoughts.

    For example, here is a good “argument” against idolatry. It is a 30-second video clip with the Hulk as the wrath of God. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30lGrarz3MQ

  • Jon G

    Percival – Thanks for that link! It was my favorite scene from the movie and I can’t stop smiling right now! 🙂

  • #4 Nate

    Christ spirit is in your neighborhood and you can catch glimpses of Christ in some of the most unexpected places. For me it was a homeless woman who wanted to love her neighbors because God’s people so loved her, a recovering addict who understands better than anyone I know what it means to die to self, a local merchant who followed Jesus to a foreign land who seeks to be a blessing to all, an elderly woman who stands on the porch when the drug dealers post up on her corner and tells them where the bus stop is knowing full well they are not waiting for a bus displaying that she is gentle as a dove but wise as a serpent. God’s story is unfolding all around us. We simply have to have eyes to see and ears to hear.

    For me contextualizing means pointing out the modern day Moses, Abraham and Paul some of whom appear as women in our modern time. It means listening deeply and learning to tell the story in the vernacular of the neighborhood. It means trusting that God is at work in things like AA groups and believing that the Christ spirit is the only spirit that can truly change lives.

    It requires that we become students of the Holy Spirit who speaks to us the same truths but through new voices using different words and often wears strange disguises. It is resisting becoming like the pharisees blinded by our own perceived righteousness and instead accept that we are only children entering into an unending mystery our father is revealing before our eyes, today, here and now.

    At least that is what contextualization has meant for me. Sorry…hope this does not come across as too preachy to all you preachers.