“You are a criminal, you have committed a crime and need to confess.” While looking around to see if anyone heard you, they respond, “I am not a criminal, what crime have I committed? I am a good person in this community. Criminals should be lock away in prison and that is not me.” You may think this is a strange interaction until you realize that the Chinese Biblical translators used the word “Zui” -Crime, for Sin and “Zui ren” -criminal, for sinner. So for those that come from Western countries that utilize evangelistic techniques emphasizing sin, there can be great confusion. Discussing theology in a non-Western way is essential for us to begin to see Jesus as an unbounded God that moves and speaks in ways that are sometimes challenging and uncomfortable.
“Each religion – just like each culture, incidentally – has a certain dynamic that allows change as a result of internal development or outside events. Cultural clothing can be changed. That is why the question arises: ‘Must God or Jesus remain Greek?’”1 Jesus lived and preached in a specific time and place on the earth. Does that mean he is most comfortable or most at home in that culture? How about the Western culture? I am sure intellectually we all agree that God isn’t Greek; he isn’t locked into a single perception. The question arises than what must he be then? What hat would fit him best? The Chinese have an apropos expression for offering someone something that does not really fit them: “placing Mr. Chang’s hat on Mr. Li’s head.” If it is Mr. Chang’s then it obviously will not fit Mr. Li’s head. So what can be done? Can we change the shape of Mr. Li’s head to fit Mr. Chang’s hat? And does it mean that God, instead of remaining Greek, must now become Korean, Chinese, Indian, South African, Kenyan, Ghanian, or Rwandan? 2 Wrapping our head around God in our own culture is something we all endeavor to do. Yet in context of another culture this seems out of our reach. This means that how Christ is understood, as well as lived out, needs to be shaped by cultural understandings of the Biblical Scriptures.
“Culture as the collective mental programming of the people in an environment…not a characteristic of individuals; it encompasses a number of people who were conditioned by the same education and life experience…culture refers to the collective mental programming that these people have in common”3 This means that Christ has to be understood through a lens of the stories of a culture. We have to see how God has interacted with the founding fathers in the United States, the emperors of China, the religions of Buddha, Islam and Hinduism. More than that we have to see how the stories that have come out of our own culture have influenced how we read the Holy scriptures. Christ and His truth can be found in every culture. We have to see Him through the lens of Buddhism, through a lens of Confucius, and of Mohammad, so that Christ is glorified in a way that that local culture can understand. Don’t worry I am not talking about Universalism, rather a search for Christ and His truth in the heart of cultures that He has created. Looking and talking about God should allow us to bring benefits to the church as a whole. Simon Chan, author of Grassroots of Asian Theology, says, “An authentic Asian theology is not just for the church in Asia but for the worldwide church…Theology is first a lived experience of the church before it is a set of ideas formulated by church theologians.”4 The Global Church in Asia, in Africa, the Americas and more, are changing the way we see ourselves and God; knowing that he is one that has created the cultures we live in. Theologians from many parts of the world are writing about new ways to talk about God that can be understood to those outside a western view.
Simon Chan desires for the world to recognize the importance of Asian theologians and their voice in this conversation on how Jesus is viewed and understood. One area is on honor and shame as a relationship to sin and salvation.5 In a relationship based culture, your sin (crime) is seen as affecting your family and community. In this context, sin is the loss of honor (face) and thus it is God who can restore your place, restore your honor and your worth. For Asian Christians, sin is not something you simply know is wrong and choosing to do it anyway, it is to be seen as being labeled an outcast and dishonoring ones loved ones. This has deep implications as one that sins and has broken communal trust can be offered restoration as well as forgiveness.
When we as Westerners have an inflexible concept of God, we not only show our arrogance but our own ignorance of a creative God. I wonder sometimes if we will be surprised at what God considers important and if there are things we spent a lot of time defending that was just our own cultural interpretations. I live in a province that has different language groups and culture from one valley to another. Great confusions still happens even though there is a common language. I wonder if for those that live in Western countries where everyone speaks the same language, if there is grace given and understanding extended to those whose culture and interpretation of the scriptures are different? Unfortunately, probably not as often as we all would like. We are global theologians discussing theology and that is essential for us to see Jesus freed to move and speak in unique and creative ways.
1Brinkman, M. E., et al. The Non-Western Jesus : Jesus as Bodhisattva, Avatara, Guru, Prophet, Ancestor or Healer?, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014
3Hofstede, Geert. “Motivation, Leadership, and Organization: Do American Theories Apply Abroad?” Organizational Dynamics 9, no. 1 (1980): 45
4Chan, Simon. Grassroots Asian Theology; Thinking the Faith from the Ground up.(Downer Grove, Il. InterVarsity Press) 2014. 7