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 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.