Soils, Salt, and Self
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
14 responses to “Soils, Salt, and Self”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Great introduction and nice job establishing your ministry context in Ch*na. I think being a contextual theologian has some divine conditions associated with it in order to be successful. In other words, it depends on the theologian’s relationship with God, closeness to the Holy Spirit, and conditioned on not living in overt sin and knowing and following the checks and balances used by the Holy Spirit to keep one on the divine path that God has ordained for their lives. I agree, we must be loyal to the Christian “meta-narrative” that the Gospel provides the world.
I liked your review of the analogy of the Christian being salt in the world. Well done!
Thank Mike. being Contextual and faithful are to me very essential to the work we all do.
What struck me most about your Blog was salt as an enhancement. I believe you are spot on. Most of the talks I have heard about salt center around salt as a preservative. If that is what we do, is preserve, I think we missed the mark. Enhancement is the key, like you so well pointed out!
Thank you for your writings this year. They are of high quality and windows to your context!
I hate to admit that I have spoken many times as salt as a preserver…I will admit it is an easy interpretation. I think the call is deeper than that kind of salt calls us to.
I know exactly what you mean! There’s nothing better than being enraptured within the pages of a story and being transported.
You rightly assert, “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.”
Wow! Does this lack of awareness come from ignorance or arrogance? I’ve seen many cross-cultural ministries fail to understand the nuances of the culture and approach people with assumption instead of understanding. What has been the most frustrating thing for you as you watch westerners approach people with assumption instead of sociological research?
I am not an expert and fall into faulty assumption as well but do see folks constantly believe that our country has all the right answers. They rarely say it but the questions they ask imply that the rest of the world in lacking because they are not as blessed as we are.
You wrote: “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.”
Yes! Yes! Yes! Can I quote you in my dissertation? This is one of the fundamental problems with the contextualization approach!
As long as you know that I often feel I am an expert of nothing 🙂
Interesting to see Jenn’s comment and quote above. This quote from you seems to say the opposite: “Finding a way to engage the a culture from within is the only way to truly know and embrace that seemly “alien culture.”” As we enter into new cultures, does that means our contextualized approach is distorted or a manipulation?
Perhaps a softer way to state it would be to recognize that we all come laden with cultural biases and frameworks that will always influence our own understanding of gospel, as well as in how we communicate it cross-culturally. Even what we presume is a correct interpretation or meta-narrative will be infused with some of our own cultural biases, won’t it?
Mark you are right. What some consider contextualized other would consider manipulation. I know that even the way that I write shows the hidden biases that I have. Thanks for calling me on that. I suppose my point was to try to highlight using broad brush the tenancy to be slow to contextualize.
Greg, your comments on how a story relates to things reminded me of the best advice I received when I was asked to teach at a preaching school in Mexico. A fellow minister said, “Remember Shawn, they will not understand American analogies the way you do.” I was disappointed at first, because I use analogies for everything; then I got to Mexico. They ate different; spent time different; shopped different; and they even talked different. My movie, commercial, and music analogies were useless. Instead, I spent the first few days just absorbing my environment; watching how they behaved and spoke…even in spite of the language barrier I was fighting. Not only did I learn a lot over that week, but I especially learned how to relate better.
Good job Greg, I had to go back over it a couple times because of the deep content here. Excellent work. Loved your wuote from Percy about theology being about trying to understand what God is saying about how he wants us to live in the world. Excellent addition to what we have always heard we are supposed to be as salt and light. love it
You wrote “The search for Godly interactions and revelations seems to be what every society desires.” I could not agree more but the discussion on the difference that salt makes within differing cultures caught my eye. You quoted Percy in saying the salt must respect the differing soils of different societies and integrate accordingly, how does this happen without changing the ideas, that is the big question especially within the context you are in within your ministry. It is hard work moving ideas from one culture to another and keeping the original meaning, to many fail at this even here in the U.S.
Thanks Jason. I was thinking that this “meta-narrative” that is the overarching Truth of gospel would not change and the the expression or interpretation might need to be modeled and shaped in ways that would make some uncomfortable or be misunderstand by some.