In my last post, I showed one way to apply the most important tool (in my opinion) discussed in One Gospel for All Nations. We used a biblical model of contextualization to interpret the biblical text through the lens of our cultural context.
Now we will move the other direction: from the biblical text to cultural context. Having a broader understanding of the Bible, how do we discern key applications and ways of communicating the biblical truth in a meaningful way?
For those who did not read the last post, I’ll again include the first section below in order to ensure readers understand the significance of the two figures. If you read the first post, feel free to skip down to the main part of the post.
The first two stages in the model provide us with two figures, one representing the biblical text and the second reflecting a cultural context. I will use Chinese culture for the sake of illustration.
In Stage One, we discern the gospel’s framework themes and explanation themes. The figure below shows how I organize the explanation themes within the three framework themes of creation, covenant, and kingdom. Naturally, the primary significance of some themes cannot be categorized into one circle.
This figure gives us a biblical lens to examine and interpret the culture around us.
In Stage Two, we identify important themes within our cultural context. What are distinguishing features of the culture or aspects that characterize most people in your context? By looking at history, idioms and familiar stories, a number of themes will no doubt emerge. The figure below gives one example of how someone might depict Chinese culture. Certainly, other details could be added and not every point is unique to China.
The above figure gives us a cultural lens that is fundamentally shaped by Scripture. Beneath covenant is the fundamental idea of “relationship” (guanxi). Authority is the underlying theme of kingdom. A variety of themes resemble ideas associated with creation narratives in the Bible. I have lumped them together under the wording of “standard”, by which I refer to traditional norms and basic assumptions about what is natural to the world.
Use Biblical Text to Address Cultural Context
How do we move from the text to cultural context?
In Stage Four, use your findings in Stage Four in order to identify key touch points between the Bible and culture. We particularly want to discern how to communicate and apply Scripture in ways that are culturally meaningful. In light of Stages One-Three, we ensure that the Bible––not culture––serves as the final authority. Biblical teaching highlights areas in the culture that should be challenged or redeemed for God’s holy purposes.
In One Gospel for All Nations, I call this stage “cultural contextualization.”
Assume you want to address the issue of ethnocentrism (or various other types of group-centrism). Look at the cultural framework circles to identify various related motifs, images, and stories. The graphic can be expanded far more than what I’ve written.
I have placed “ethnicity” at the overlapping space between “relationship” and “standard.” We are reminded what it is that we want to address.
Ethnocentrism concerns collective identity and ultimately shapes one’s worldview (i.e. our standard norms and assumptions about the world). Without much thought, we know we will have to think about related background issues like tradition, prejudice, family and “face.”
The Bible provides a framework that helps us prioritize multiple interrelated cultural issues. Not every cultural issue can be brought back to the gospel with the same ease. Often, felt needs and the best known topics are mere symptoms of fundamental problems that more directly concern core gospel themes (as I’ll illustrate below).
Look at the “creation” and “covenant” circles (which parallel the “relationship” and “standard” circles in the culture graphic). Especially note where they overlap.
A plethora of biblical ideas are noteworthy. Most significant among them is the Abrahamic covenant, in which God promised Abraham, “In you (via his offspring) all nations will be blessed” (Cf. Gen 12:3). This promise is called the gospel is Galatians 3:8.
Related themes include the “nations”, blessing/curse, life/death, and land (as sacred space). By extension, we see the story of Israel come into sharper focus. After all, they were uniquely chosen as God’s instrument to bless the world. The exodus and the Law distinguished them from other peoples.
Over time, however, that vocation morphed into an unhealthy type of group-centeredness. Given their own unfaithfulness, the people of Israel had compromised and became more like the surrounding nations. Having suffered death, poverty and slavery in exile, the Jews grew increasingly exclusivistic.
Maintaining the Law and tradition fused. Some Jews could not distinguish obedience to God and disdain for outsiders. Circumcision, for example, was not only an act of devotion to God. It also symbolized ethnic identity. Not conforming to Jewish practices meant exclusion from Israel and warranted the label “Gentile.”
What at first looks like a “religious issue” might be about something else.
Take the issue about whether a Christian should marry a non-believing spouse. Beneath this matter is the question of authority and identity. Too often, parents might pressure their son to marry in order that he will perpetuate the family name and bloodline. In this case, the problem is rooted in a fundamental flaw in thinking about collective identity and what is most “natural.” Rather than seeing God as Father of the one human family, the above parents do not grasp our true family and Father. They divide the world along “natural” biological lines (so they suppose).
Likewise, ancestor veneration at times is more complicated that some foreigners thinking. Many Chinese regard the practice as little more than a cultural ritual. They do not necessarily “worship” a deceased spirit. Young persons in particular might engage in the practice to appease elders. For them, to venerate ancestors is a matter of respect in authority and preserving “face.” According, having long dialogues with them about monotheism could well miss the point and not touch heart issues.
A Biblical Perspective on Culture
The Bible should reorient our understanding of any culture. In so doing, we begin to grasp the central threats that link a particular culture to the biblical Story. Cultural ideals and standards of honor-shame are reassessed in light of that Story.
Without each of the model’s four stages, we risk using the Bible merely do confirm or support our personal desires and cultural norms. Our opinions might not be entirely wrong; yet, we will likely touch on many issues that are secondary. In the meantime, our efforts could be wasted if people see us defending a cultural perspective and not the biblical teaching.