Reading into stories has been an aged old past time whether we are talking about the stories of the Bible or stories of history. Our contextual lenses diffuse those stories to understandable and manageable for our brains to grasp and draw analogies from. Recognizing that this is something all of humanity participates in, willingly or not, hardly diminishes the outcome and confusion of what might be the original intention of a story. Many of us are fascinated by stories. When we hear a lecturer, a pastor, an anthropologist, etc.. we often connect best when a story is told. Imagery and parables that relate to our world seem to bring new life to lessons that need to be learned. As all stories are filtered through our cultural and societal lenses we look for ways to make those outside our own context to be understood and be able to be filed away in ways that contextually fit into our worldview.
In China, I often try to take what I hear and filter it through my own understanding and interpretations. Reading into the culture our own understanding often produces what we like to think is contextualized ministry but is in reality a manipulation and distortion of the original intent. David Hall and Roger Ames says, “For it is only when we become sensitive to indigenous elements that resonate with the important Chinese values and doctrines that we will be able to appropriate elements of that alien culture to enrich our own experience.”1 That sensitivity is not something that we can package and teach nor can we gain it by short term interaction with a community. Finding a way to engage the a culture from within is the only way to truly know and embrace that seemly “alien culture.”
Percy says, “all theology is some kind of attempt to confer intelligibility on God‘s way with the world.” 2 The search for Godly interactions and revelations seems to be what every society desires. Contextual theologians seek to see God through their own societal filters knowing that each manifestation of God will be see differently through the eyes of each culture. In Asia when one talks about God and the spiritual world it is often understood through the culture’s understanding of Buddhism or ancestral worship. So stories of hearing the voice of God, of being directed by the Holy Spirit, or even the living Word of God actively speaking are all understood from a different cultural context than sometimes intended. I believe some contextual theologians take this argument farther than I believe is Biblical. If we allow all social context to dictate our understanding of God then we forgot the Meta-narrative that ties the world of Christianity and the global Story of God together. We make truth subject to whims of society and Christ a construct of each culture’s interpretation.
If we believe that culture and context are what shape the ways in which we understand the scriptures, then we must believe that we are a part of the process that shapes. We see, hear, and know Christ in how he interacts with the world that we live in. We don’t fully know the unknowable, see the unseeable, nor shape the unchangeable however we understand who He is as we live in the world full of diverse cultures and seemly intentional brokenness.
Martyn Percy’s discussion of the salt of the earth and its cultural meanings describes in detail this phenomenon of being salt. He describes the salt as not being sodium chloride but rather a fertilizer that diffuses itself into the soil (the earth). He said,
The many soils of the world carry, in various degrees, qualities of empowerment and disempowerment within cultures…increasingly marginalized through globalization, which has brought with it materialism individualism consumerism and hedonism with the undesirable result of suffocating the life-giving force of the earth3
This world with is many cultures, soils, and religions challenges us to find ways of participating and influencing this culture as only those separate and called by God can do. I found it a powerful image of not being the table salt that enhances, purifies, perserves…the typical interpretations that draw us to focus on the salt and all they will do. The contrast the Percy calls us to see is that Christ is asking us to give up our power, self identity, ability and slow transformation of the culture we are called to. Percy says:
that power enculturated into contexts, does not lead to uniformity. Rather it leads to considerable diversity of expression, growth, and human flourishing. The salt must always respect the type of earth in which it is situated. Diverse cultural sensitivities have to be taken into account in the mission of the church. The soil may also be in hospitable; it may be rocky, thorny, and adversely affected by climatic conditions.4
This vision of mission is one that does not call for those to make disciples like themselves rather after engaging in a community, understanding a culture and realizing that we are not finding ways to bring a enhancement to this community, culture nor people rather we are developing deep authentic relationships that are messy and potentially suck the life out of us in order for God to make them the way He would have their culture glorified. Percy states,
The salt is not to be kept apart from society, and neither is it to be used as a purifier or an additive stabilizer. Ministers are not to be simply preservers of a good society or institutions, and neither are they nearly agreeable folks adding flavor … true religion, as salt, is a light bringing force giving itself to an otherwise sterile culture.5
If imagery is understood and remembered in ways that are greater than mere words, then this idea of salt that does not maintain in own distinctiveness but has the ability to enrich a culture only as it is dissolved and diffused can in my opinion bring great understanding to the idea of contextual theology. With God’s meta-narrative we can be purposeful to give ourselves to a society the needs to be nourished by God and not enhanced by us. Then our story is not separate from the Story of God and our lives are given over to a work that might never recognize our contribution to its transformation.
1 David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames, Anticipating China: Thinking through the Narratives of Chinese and Western Culture (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995).
2 Markham, Ian S., and Joshua Daniel. Reasonable Radical? : Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2018.76
3 Ibid. 216
5 Ibid. 217