Friday, January 29, 2016

Do We Really Need to Contextualize?

A video by William Taylor of St Helen's Bishopsgate seems to have stirred up some conversation on social media. Here are some of my thoughts on it.

Taylor argues that there is far too much emphasis on contextualization in preaching. The idea, commonly shared, that we should preach the gospel with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, Taylor says, is profoundly unhelpful. We need rather to preach with the Bible in both hands and as we do so it will be shown to be truly relevant to the people to whom we are speaking. We need, he suggests, to be beavers in regard to the Word but magpies in regard to the culture: we beaver away at understanding the text and that makes us aware of the shiny objects (the cultural phenomena) that magpies are supposed to be fond of.

I have deep respect for Taylor and am very thankful for his ministry. I must say, though, that I cannot agree with him. I appreciate the point that we can make contextualization a science such that people are intimidated to even try to communicate the message for fear of not connecting properly. What he says is clearly true when it comes to working in one's own society (if one acknowledges the variations within it). The big issue comes as we try to move out of our society and encounter people from a very different background. And the greater the cultural mileage, the bigger the issue becomes. So when we attempt to communicate a message across a cultural gap we need to be aware of how that gap affects the communication. And that works two ways - the way we understand the receptor culture and the way the people of the receptor culture understand us.

It is only by working hard to understand the receptor culture that we can appreciate the way our message should be articulated. Then we will hopefully avoid the kind of faux pas that every missionary would rather forget and that can have such a negative impact on the way our message is received. If they reject my message because they understand the significance of the cross that is their shame and their folly. But if they reject it because I didn't do my homework carefully enough, well, that is my shame and folly. Not that we all need PhDs in understanding the culture. But if none of us grapples with it, who will tell us when we are failing? The Apostle Paul 'looked carefully' at the Athenians' objects of worship (Acts 17:23). That gave him the way in to his audience. If Paul, who grew up in that region, felt the need for deliberate, conscientious cultural observation, then surely we should too. I have written before about Reformed cross-cultural naivete. My fear is that Taylor's stance is an example of just that problem.

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