Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Context Matters

Written by: on February 7, 2015

elephant 2How often I have heard the story of the six blind men who were asked to describe an elephant. Each man felt with his hands a different part of the elephant. Each man described the elephant in a different way based on what he felt and what he knew of the world. The man near the elephant’s tail said that the elephant was like a rope. The man who felt the animal’s ear said it was like a fan. And so on. The truth of the elephant remained. It was not altered by the way in which it was described by each man. And each man spoke the truth in a relative way. The point, of course, is that each man’s description of the elephant was limited by his perspective, however accurate that perspective might be. None could describe the whole elephant. Further, since none of the men had a language to precisely describe what the elephant felt like, they used metaphors of things common in their world or their context: a rope, a wall, a fan, a cave.

Stephen B. Bevans writes, “There is no such thing as “theology”; there is only contextual theology…” [1] He goes on to describe contextual theology as adding a third theological source to the traditional study of God. Traditional theology considers Scripture and tradition as the two primary sources of information, while contextual theology adds the present human experience, or context. Bevans provides a solid argument for why such an approach is necessary: in order to understand the truth it must be described in a manner that makes sense in the culture or context that it is being studied. This makes sense to me in many ways. I try to equip my students to be able to interpret and communicate with fluidity as they move in and out of different contexts. This means being able to recognize and speak the language of their family when they are with family, and then to be able to recognize and speak the language of their future workplace, for example) when they are in that setting.

The challenge in this ability to understand and communicate in different contexts is multiple. First, we tend to always be most fluent in our first language. That means when we translate to other languages or contexts we might not always be as accurate or even appropriate. Second, it is difficult not to compromise self when living and communicating in multiple contexts. In the instance of theology and God, it is difficult to not try and adapt Him TO our context, as opposed to finding the best way to experience Him within the context. We need to try, as best as we are able, to communicate the truth of Him as a consistent whole, or else we wind up with an elephant that looks like a collage of images and ideas.

elephant 1

These things being said, we also live with the reality that none of us has a perfect understanding of God and the truth. We interpret these things through our contexts. None of us are purely objective.

Jesus often taught in parables, using stories that made sense in the context of his time and place and culture to reveal truths about God. Though many people can make inferences about the meaning of various parables, the deeper our understanding of the context, the greater our understanding of the story. Further, as we increase our understanding of the original context of the story, it helps us to translate the truth principles into our own context. The Bible, Justice, and Public Theology [2] brings together a variety of scholars to reflect on how two of Jesus parables, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, might be used to guide current discourse on public issues such as justice, victimization, and compassion. In each parable, the deeper one’s understanding of the context of the situation, the greater our ability to interpret and apply the story in our own setting.

All of this said, I come to wonder how objective any of us can ever be in describing God, both to those from our own contexts and those in different contexts, whether public, secular, Christian, national, urban or other cultural context. Last year when we read Sarah Pink’s work on visual and sensory ethnography [3], I struggled with her claim that ethnography could never truly be objective. It was always skewed by one’s personal experiences, cultural context, and place. But I have come to see this as more and more accurate. Though we might try to retain an ideal of non-biased objectivity, in our human condition it simply is not possible. Though the truth of God Himself is not altered, our understanding and our ability to communicate who He is will ever be anchored in our understanding of the world in which we live.

Perhaps the greater challenge is helping others to recognize this limitation. As I read stories in which the authors relate their experiences in physical spaces – Cuba, London, Los Angeles, New York – I travel with them in my mind. I find that the more I travel, the more I am able to attempt to go to those spaces in my mind. As other’s lives and values and theologies are informed by their experiences and contexts, I am better able to try and understand because I have caught glimpses of their realities. But can I fully understand? No.

I have focused my research on the idea of Cultural Empathy. I argue to my students that everything that they’ve been taught about empathy is not true. Most have been taught that empathy is the ability to intuitively understand another person’s feelings. I tell them that this is simply not possible. None of us experiences the same feelings in the same way because it is always impacted by our perceptions of events, the experiences we have lived, and the other factors that make up our culture and context. Rather, I teach them that cultural empathy is the attempt to understand the thoughts and feelings of the other based on their context.

I think then, that our task in theology is to recognize the limitations of our humanity, yet focus on trying, as best as we are able, to tell the story of God in a manner that our audience can understand. Without compromising God. Whatever that might mean.

Postscript: I really, really wanted to write about the reflections by Sheila Briggs and Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz [4]. I found myself caught up in their stories of place and identity and how this shapes who we are and how we live. I thought about how I can both relate to the ideas about place – buildings, streets and fields – and relationship with people in those places as deep parts of my own identity. So I decided to include this quote from Jack Kerouac that speaks to the reflective space in me that these two articles invoked:

What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies. (On the Road)

[1] Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013, p. 3.
[2] David J. Neville, ed., The Bible, Justice, and Public Theology, Eugene, OR: WIPF & Stock Publishers, 2014.
[3] Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography, Los Angeles: Sage, 2007; Sarah Pink, Doing Sensory Ethnography, Los Angeles: Sage, 2009.
[4] Sheila Briggs, “Taking the Train: A Theological Journey through Contemporary Los Angeles County”, and Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, “La Habana: The City that Inhabits Me,” in Spirit in the Cities: Searching for the Soul in the Urban Landscape, Kathryn Tanner, Ed., Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004.

About the Author

Julie Dodge

Julie loves coffee and warm summer days. She is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Concordia University, Portland, a consultant for non-profit organizations, and a leader at The Trinity Project.

16 responses to “Context Matters”

  1. Julie…
    Such a rich post. Your insight and comment on our objectivity resonated so deeply. It makes me wonder at how we communicate, the power and intent, the posture and fear. If would could recognize and realize the impact of how we see God and others with the reality of perspective we might then be able to truly learn from one another. The readings this week were profound and compelling, as is your post. 🙂

    Thank you for your postscript and the quote, as well.

    • Julie Dodge says:

      Thank you Carol.

      I think all of this is perhaps prefaced with an attitude of humility, as Jesus modeled. I have to want to understand you, and to consider that your thoughts and beliefs and realities are just as valid as mine. I have to allow room for me to be wrong, and at the same time hold to the understanding of truth that God has given me. For me, I find that the more I rest in God, trust Him in everything, the easier it is to let Him lead into other perspectives. Because it’s not about me, but Him.

  2. Julie,

    You are spot on here.

    I especially liked your point about Pink and ethnography. I am also leaning towards agreeing with Pink’s perspective about objectivity. I wish more people could get this. If they did, maybe fewer people would be burned in cages or beheaded. If a part of me cannot say, “I don’t know everything” or “I only understand truth imperfectly,” then I cannot truly function in the real world; I will only be living in my own world. What a sad place to live. What a sad place to be.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts here. I always learn from you.

    By the way, I will contact you again when I actually have some time to meet. I look forward to that.

    • Julie Dodge says:

      Burned in cages or beheaded… Powerful images. Powerful reality. Yet even here these actions make sense (though I profoundly disagree with them). I see the actions of ISIS and others as the outrage of the oppressed. If those of us in power have refused to include them, to consider their perspective, why should they consider ours? Of course, what remains true is that far too many of us with privilege still refuse to consider the perspective of the oppressed. We just call them violent and wrong and evil. Sadly, we are not so different from them at all.

  3. rhbaker275 says:

    I enjoyed your post. I am always impressed with the way you relate our readings to your work in the classroom and the students you teach. It is wise for your students to recognize their presuppositions and bias.

    I also know people who arrive at conclusions and make sweeping judgments based on their “intuition.” We often refer to that as a “gut feeling.” We can fail to recognize that we are simply evaluating what is happening in the context of our own experience. There is a certain amount of “expertise” that comes from our experiences. When someone asks me a question or for my opinion on an electrical or construction problem they are having, I often say, “I can make an educated guess.” My point is that I recognize that from my context, based on what I have done and experienced here is an answer you might consider. The accuracy is based on how near the context the problem presented approaches the context of my experience, and it is prudent of me to recognize that fact.

    The significance of telling someone why their kitchen light does not come on pales in comparison to sharing the Light of the world with those walking in darkness. If a house is wired in knob and tube, I can get fairly technical in talking about the cause and how one might deal with the problem; I can speak a different language. I can make the same mistaken assumptions in taking the gospel to those who do not understand their problem and don’t speak the church or Bible language. Just yesterday, a pastor shared with me a phone call he received in the middle of the night; his son was in the hospital after a drug overdose. He had just come from visiting his son and he said to me, “I don’t understand. I told him if he keeps doing this, he is going to go to hell.” Certainly, my pastor friend has love and concern, it was apparent in his voice and body language, but his empathy is contextually misguided. His message may be true but his son is not going to hear.

    • Julie Dodge says:

      Thank you Ron.

      About that “gut feeling”… I also teach my students that when they have a strong gut feeling, an urge, to say something, that is probably the best time to simply be quiet and listen. Because that gut is likely more about themselves than about the other. But as Christians we often confuse that with the leading of the Spirit. Sigh.

      I also loved how you related your electrical knowledge. You are so right. My 1905 house has a lot of knob and tube wiring still and if you started trying to explain that to me, I would probably glaze over and just wait for you to tell me that you know what to do. But in matters of Christ, you can’t do it for me. I have to be able to understand and relate. I have to be able to want what you are trying to tell me I need. Sure you can tell me I’m going to hell – but maybe I think I’m already there. Maybe I need to know that I’m not alone. Maybe I need to know that there is hope and that this hope is relevant to my life. That is indeed the more significant challenge.

  4. Liz Linssen says:

    Hi Julie
    I do agree with you – it’s very hard to be truly empathetic, to truly understand what the other person is feeling or going through. As you say, we can only attempt empathy. I love your quote, “Though the truth of God Himself is not altered, our understanding and our ability to communicate who He is will ever be anchored in our understanding of the world in which we live.”
    I find it so interesting to see how other Christians live in other parts of the world. I will never forget my visit to Jerusalem, the city made up of four quarters: Armenian, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. Each quarter felt so different spiritually, and each had their own various buildings of worship. I remember visiting one grand church within the Christian quarter and it looked Catholic – grand statues and all that. Not my preferred way to worship but nonetheless, these Christians felt they could worship God in that place. And that should be respected. Now if you travel to the underground church in China, we’d find a completely different venue of worship – perhaps an underground basement, or some other secret venue.
    The point is, says Jesus, true worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth. The context may vary, but the heart of worship is the same. Attempts in understanding other cultures is surely the first step towards the successful application of contextual theology. Thank you Julie. Really enjoyed your post.

    • Julie Dodge says:

      You raise still more great thoughts, Liz. I also find it more difficult to worship in the grand churches. They seem to me a distraction and not like the God I envision. As I have matured, I have come to appreciate various models and structures of worship, but some feel more like “home”. Thank God that we worship in spirit and truth.

  5. Julie! I believe you provide a great contextualization of the material in the way you speak of teaching your students. Well done. Keeping the truth the truth and still apply it within the context of where we work and live is always a difficult task but very much needed in our modern day. Love the analogy of the elephant and the blind men. This is so true when we tried to explain God within our own culture. What’s needed is that we realize that we are looking always through the lens of our own culture.

    • Julie Dodge says:

      Absolutely, Mitch. Funny, in younger times I always just thought that the blind men were explaining the elephant in silly ways. But it’s really a lot like what we are trying to do all the time. We’re trying to explain God when we have a limited view of him to start out with. And then we use words and metaphors that make sense in our world to try and communicate what we see, but it is always less than who He is. Maybe if we started by acknowledging our inadequacy instead of assuring our “rightness” we would do a bit better.

  6. Ashley Goad says:

    Julie, I loved everything about your post. Everything.

    I loved how you brought up the story of the six men and the elephant. My mind continued to wander back to the Gospels. Here were four different men, each with different backgrounds, each speaking in their own language and writing for their peers (or a specific group of people), and the wrote about the same subject – Jesus. Though some of the stories overlapped, each book gives a slightly different glimpse into the life of Jesus. Fascinating.

    And then you write about travel. Julie, I am finding the same thing. My mind continues to grow and wonder. Though it’s only a slight, ever so brief, glance into the lives and culture of the people, it gives me the thirst for wanting more – wanting to know more about who they are as people, as a community, as a culture – and that is what takes me back.

    And finally, your Jack Kerouac quote. Wow. That could not have been more perfect as I prepare for Russia this week.

    Hugs, friend!

    • Julie Dodge says:

      Wait – it’s Russia this week? I need to write down your schedule! Well, I’m praying for that too!

      I’ve loved that Kerouac quote since college. Which for me was a long time ago 😉

      So tell me, when you see something on TV or in a movie or you read about someplace you’ve been, do you look, hoping to see something or someone you recognize? I do that more and more. But more, I think it brings back memories. I also find that the more meaningful the human experience I have, the more meaningful the place becomes.

      Peace on your journey! Pack warm clothes!

      • Ashley says:

        Well, I’m just finishing up packing this week for Russia! Last year it was -27; this year’s it’s been in the 20’s! That’s a 40-degree swing, so I need to repack!

        You are exactly right — Watching the episodes of Homeland (that were filmed in CapeTown) I looked for landmarks we would have walked past. When I see a photo of people in Uganda or Haiti, I look from face to face to see if it is one of my friends. On the news, I try to catch glimpses of highways or restaurants. I love feeling connected, even if I am not physically there. …And then the theme song, “It’s a small world after all…” begins to play 🙂

  7. Michael Badriaki says:

    Julie, I was hooked from the beginning. What an excellent post!! Firstly, I miss you, our coffee times and would like to meet if post surgery season allows. I want to get your insight on a few things. I loved this post Julie. I agree with your analysis on the desire to want to do contextualization perfectly or objectively. As soon as we can acknowledge the complexities that come with contextual theologizing better prepared we can be for “fluidity”. As you put it. “This means being able to recognize and speak the language of their family when they are with family, and then to be able to recognize and speak the language of their future workplace, for example) when they are in that setting.”

    It seems to me that missionaries are prepared to practice “contextualization” as a little nice trick to “change” the people they seek to reach. It is contextualization for over there and to done for those “other” people. However, you encourage me to appreciate how contextual theology can be helpful in the humble realization of the need to learn from other contexts, after all I might grow from learning about perspectives of the elephant and that okay.


    Thank you

    • Julie Dodge says:

      I would love to have coffee, Michael. Seeing you always energizes me.

      Even as you write about contextualization as a “trick” missionaries use, you reveal your context. You did not see it as genuine, but a means to cozy up to someone, so to speak. And that was your real experience, so it became suspect. Your perspective was influenced by your reality.

      I have often talked about doing social work in communities that were not my own as being a tourist. I may never be a “member” of that community. But if I genuinely want to be effective, then I need to find a way to connect. I have talked about finding a “tour guide”, someone who is a member of the community who is either respected (and thus others will be more likely to consider me) or neutral (thus I might be perceived as less threatening). While I want to learn as much as I can and learn to communicate according to the context, I know that I will always be an outsider. This brings several realizations. One, I may never be fully trusted. Two, I must maintain a posture of humility. Three, other people know more and better than I do. All of these things are ok to me, because my work as a social worker or in ministry is not about me. I think that one of the errors, however unintentional, of many missionaries and social workers, is that we don’t recognize these realities. I’m not here to persuade you to live in my reality according to my values and beliefs. I’m here to share something good with you that you need to decide if it works in your world, how to use it in your world, and how to share it in your world.

      Hope to see you soon!

    • Richard Volzke says:

      Michael, (in Julie post)
      You stated, “It seems to me that missionaries are prepared to practice “contextualization” as a little nice trick to “change” the people they seek to reach. It is contextualization for over there and to done for those “other People.” From my experience, many missionaries want to practice contextualization in a culture, but they have not been trained to do so appropriately. Hence, they seek to change people to their way of thinking, as they don’t have the cultural intelligence needed to contextualize theology. Many times, mission organizations fail to adequately prepare missionaries before they go to the field, and many do not make it past 1 to 2 years. There are organizations that will accept a person as a missionary if they are breathing. Like a pastor, being a missionary is a specific calling and gift from God. Not everyone is truly called to serve in this capacity.

Leave a Reply