Contextualization in China

c7329ace3db9d428f85d947528660405_400x400The latest issue of ChinaSource Quarterly was released a couple of weeks ago. The articles are all dedicated to issues of contextualization in China. There are some very helpful pieces here, including an interview with a house church pastor and an article written by a Chinese cross-cultural worker. Other articles include engagement with majority and minority cultures in China.

I contributed an article titled “Union with Christ and Contextualization in China.” In it, I  show the importance of union with Christ in the New Testament, specifically focusing on Ephesians. I then point to some conceptual connections with Chinese culture, suggesting that this significant biblical concept can prove useful in evangelism and discipleship among Chinese.

The entire issue can be accessed here:

https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/chinasource-quarterlies/contextualization-and-the-chinese-church

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Original Languages and Mission

mark manuscriptIn their new Intermediate Greek Grammar, David Mathewson and Elodie Ballantine Emig provide a lengthy quote from Martin Luther on the importance of the biblical languages:

 

For the devil smelled a rat, and perceived that if the languages were revived a hole would be knocked in his kingdom which he could not easily stop up again. Since he found he could not prevent their revival, he now aims to keep them on such slender rations that they will of themselves decline and pass away. . . Although the gospel came and still comes to us through the Holy Spirit alone, we cannot deny that it came through the medium of languages, was spread abroad by that means, and must be preserved by the same means. . . In proportion then as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the languages. . . And let us be sure of this: we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages . . . The Holy Spirit is no fool. He does not busy himself with inconsequential or useless matters. He regarded the languages as so useful and necessary to Christianity that he ofttimes brought them down with him from heaven. This alone should be a sufficient motive for us to pursue them with diligence and reverence and not to despise them . . . When our faith is . . . held up to ridicule, where does the fault lie? It lies in our ignorance of the languages; and there is no other way out than to learn the languages . . . Since it becomes Christians then to make good use of the Holy Scriptures as their one and only book and it is a sin and a shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God, it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study the languages, especially in these days when God is giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book . . . The preacher or teacher can expound the Bible from beginning to end as he pleases, accurately or inaccurately, if there is no one there to judge whether he is doing it right or wrong. But in order to judge, one must have a knowledge of the languages; it cannot be done any other way.

In mission context, we severely stunt the growth of the church when we do not teach the languages. The goal of mission cannot be simply evangelism or even church planting. We must train church leaders and leaders of leaders to rightly handle the Word of truth. And, an important part of that training is the biblical languages.

Why Learn Another Language?

I recently listened to a TED Talk by linguist John McWhorter giving four reasons for learning a foreign language. This brief talk was very interesting and well-done. Particularly striking for me was his first reason: “if you want to imbibe a culture, you have to control, to some degree, the language the culture happens to be conducted in.” For those seeking to minister cross-culturally, this is a very important point.

McWhorter begins his discussion of the benefits of language learning by pushing back on the notion that learning language teaches one to think differently. He argues that language-benefitsworldview is not uniformly reflected through language. As an illustration, he notes 3 different English speakers who clearly have differing worldviews. I would only partially agree here as I think there is a closer relationship between worldview and language than McWhorter allows, especially in many languages other than English. Further, in my experience, learning another language does stretch the mind and open up new avenues of thinking.

McWhorter then moves to the main content of the talk: why learn language? For me, reason number one is reason enough. While language may not always perfectly reflect worldview, one cannot effectively operate within a culture without speaking that culture’s language. For missionaries, this is especially true: one cannot hope to communicate the message of the gospel in a culturally meaningful way without understanding the language of that culture. Put otherwise, good contextualization necessarily involves language learning.

Beyond the obvious (people in many parts of the world don’t speak English), there is a further reason for this. Concepts merely translated directly from English into equivalent words of another language often fail to accurately communicate one’s message. Simply translating words from one language to another does not result in culturally meaningful communication.

For example, Chinese people have been told by English-speaking Christians “你是一个罪人” – “you are a sinner.” Many Chinese balk at this notion because “罪人” in Chinese most commonly refers to “criminals” – murderers and the like. Very few Chinese would agree that they are this kind of person. Obviously this is a rather simple example, but it illustrates the point: without learning the language, one can very easily miscommunicate.

Learning language is essential for gospel communication and cultural understanding. It demonstrates love for those we serve.

Here’s McWhorter’s talk:

The Need for Speed and the Related Dangers

Hilarious! I’ve seen it a thousand times and it is still funny.

As funny as the video is, it sadly illustrates some missionary methodology. How so? In recent years, some methodologies have put a premium on two things: high numbers and speed. In other words, successful methodology is that which quickly produces high numbers of new believers and new churches. Implicitly, the numbers are taken to represent God’s blessing on a certain methodology.

Of course, there are numerous problems with this, both biblically and practically. Biblically, I don’t see Jesus or Paul focusing on speed or numbers. In fact, by that measurement, we would have to say that Jesus was not very “successful.” After three years, he had only twelve disciples, one of whom betrayed him, one denied him, and the ten others rarely understood what he was talking about. (I say this tongue-in-cheek). Practically, the emphasis on speed overlooks a basic fact of faith: it takes time.

The emphasis on speed can lead missionary practitioners to neglect some essential aspects of cross-cultural ministry. For the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on just one: worldview. When one’s methodology is focused on quickly producing high numbers, worldview is set aside in two related ways. First, the worldview of the people is ignored or inadequately considered. The result is that we can share something that is true, but is  misunderstood by people hearing our message.

For example, if one presents the gospel in terms of guilt (you sinned and you will go to hell) in China, he could likely present answers to the wrong questions. That is, while the statement is true, it is probably going to be misunderstood or considered irrelevant to the average Chinese person. The Chinese term for sinner (罪人) normally means “criminal” and most Chinese people do not consider themselves to be criminals. Thus, though the statement is true, it is easily misunderstood. Failure to consider worldview in the name of speed leads to misunderstandings of the gospel message.

Second, biblical worldview building is neglected. Central to discipleship is the building of a new worldview. I believe the best way to build a biblical worldview is through the biblical story (see my previous posts on the biblical story). However, much rapid discipleship focuses on a number of “how to’s” – how to share the gospel, how to pray, how to start a church – and neglects the more fundamental issue of helping a new believer build a new worldview. The result is new believers lack the worldview structure that allows them to live out their new faith.

Back to the video above – the runner in the video finished the race quicker by busting through the hurdles. In fact, he beat at least 2-3 other runners. However, he is disqualified and his efforts, while providing a good laugh, did not lead to “success.” I fear that the neglect of worldview issues in missionary methodology leads to similar results: we plow forward quickly, but the end result is not what we desire.

I am not saying that we need to slow down for the sake of slowness. Nor am I saying that God cannot move to quickly bring multitudes to faith. Instead, I am saying that we cannot bust through worldview hurdles to finish the task quicker. We must give careful consideration to both the worldview of our people and to helping new believers build a biblical worldview. In the end, depth cannot be sacrificed for breadth – both must be held in balance.

 

Text and Context

‘By a strange paradox, Paul may be most significant today when he is most carefully re-situated in his own original context.’

-John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift, p. 7

I have received my copy of John Barclay’s new book, Paul and the Gift and it looks to be a game-changer for Pauline studies. I’ll have more to say about this important book in the future, but for today, the last sentence (quoted above) of the prologue got me thinking about exegesis, biblical theology, and communicating biblical truth across cultures.

Barclay’s primary subject is Paul’s theology of grace, understood in terms of gift. His strategy is careful exegesis of the biblical text, understood within its first century context, particularly Paul’s Jewish heritage. Here, Barclay argues that while the biblical text is primary, proper exegesis must take background study into account. Doing so clarifies the meaning the text and, consequently, illuminates it’s significance for the contemporary church.

I want to add one thought to this: responsible exegesis set within the textual and historical context of the biblical text also aids in communicating biblical truth across cultures. 

context-matters

There are at least two reasons this is so:

1. First, biblical truth was revealed in particular cultures.

To appropriate the words of John Donne, ‘No text is an island.’  The Scriptures did not fall from the sky as a set of propositions, but were revealed over time and in particular cultural contexts. Thus, the words of Scripture are best understood within their cultural contexts. Of course, I am not saying that texts and historical contexts carry equal value. Indeed, the biblical text is sufficient in and of itself. And, primary interpretive weight is given to the biblical context.

Nevertheless, historical contexts are important for rightly understanding the meanings of particular words and phrases. Thus, background study helps us rightly understanding authorial intent and meaning.

This point is significant in teaching cross-culturally because no one reads the biblical text as a blank slate – i.e. without their own cultural lenses. Historical context helps guard us from importing foreign meanings into the biblical text.

2. Second, placing texts in context helps illuminate the concreteness of truth.

Removing texts from historical context often results in the abstracting of the message of the text, which inherently makes it more difficult to understand. While some theological truth is abstract in nature, most biblical theology is communicated in concrete stories. In choosing this manner of self-revelation, God contextualized truth so that humans could understand and apply.

It is helpful for us as readers of texts to see the way in which God has acted in history, the way in which these great historical acts were understood by believers, and the way in which believers’ lives were changed as they applied the gospel to real life situations. Concreteness communicates cross-culturally.

Reading biblical texts in historical context helps us to see the concrete reality of biblical theology. This is the point at which truth is truly life-changing and worldview building.

My Global Missiology Article


The latest issue of Global Missiology is out and includes an article I wrote titled “Biblical Theology and Cross-Cultural Theological Education: The Epistle to the Romans as a Model.”

In this article, I argue that biblical theology is an essential tool for cross-cultural theological educators. There are many reasons for this, including the nature of Scripture itself as a cross-cultural book. In fact, the use of biblical theology to teach theology is not new – it was Paul’s method of instruction in Romans.

My article can be downloaded here (for free!).

The entire issue is available here.

I’d love to hear your feedback.