The Personal History behind "Saving God's Face"

The Personal History behind "Saving God's Face" May 8, 2013

What is the personal history behind my book, Saving God’s Face?

Why did I write this book?

IMG_4328Years ago, I had a startling realization. Theologians and pastors have long taught on the glory of God and its central importance in the Bible. However, because I was living in East Asia, it also dawned on me that this sort of talk about God’s glory, praising him, and magnifying his name was simply another way of talking about honor and shame.

When I looked at most theology and missions-related books, I found that honor and shame seemed to be treated differently. Anthropologists talked about honor-shame, but theologians largely focused more on legal metaphors.

I could see both themes in Scripture but couldn’t find help as to how to bring them together.

The problem became more serious for me as I thought about Chinese culture. In Mandarin, the word for “sin” is translated literally as “crime.” Therefore, when people hear the gospel, they were being told, “You are criminals!!” Naturally, people do not understand what they are hearing. In China, as in other countries, people think primarily in terms of “face” and relationships. “Law” is less a prominent theme in daily life.

This raised a number of questions.

Theologically, why have Christians favored law-language when so much of the Bible emphasizes God’s glory and his people not being put to shame? How could I reconcile the gap between these two metaphors, not choosing one over the other? Why did people get nervous whenever I would talk about honor-shame, as if I were denying what the Bible said about law and absolute truth?

Missiologically, how do we share the gospel in honor-shame cultures in a way that both reflects what the Bible really says and does not come across as superficial? How are we supposed to reconcile the conviction that God’s word is absolutely true but that our perspectives are limited?

Why has so much been written about contextualization yet there is little agreement about how to actually do it?

In short, if God’s glory is central to understanding Scripture and living the Christian life yet ancient and eastern cultures have a deep appreciation for honor & shame, then we have to figure out how these cultures can help us to understand the original intent of the biblical authors’.

(In terms of methodology, I’ve written an article elaborating on how contemporary cultures can help us to interpret a text like the Bible, which comes from more ancient cultures. It is called “We Compromise the Gospel When We Settle for Truth: How ‘Right’ Interpretations Lead to ‘Wrong’ Contextualization.”)

Have others written on this topic?

Not exactly. This is why I felt an urgent need to spur a dialogue on the issues I mentioned above. In some form, people in different spheres and academic disciplines have written on some theme discussed in the book. However, on the whole, I constantly found people not seriously engaging with others in other disciplines. No doubt this is due to the increased specialization that within modern academia.

To do contextualization, I’m increasingly persuaded a person needs to be a generalist, knowing a decent bit about a number of things though not the world’s expert on any one area.

In terms of contextualization and specifically in China, much of the literature has been too general in my opinion. I wanted people to have some tangible handles to begin moving forward in the development of theologies, methods, and strategies. It’s just not enough to agree on principles.

Change happens in specifics.

For a sample of Chapter One, click here.

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