I grew up in North Carolina in a traditional Southern culture. Shrimp and grits, homemade biscuits, sweet tea, ladies in pearls and men in seersucker suits were everyday, normal ways of life. Religion and politics were “no-no’s” at dinner parties, and everyone always dressed in their Sunday best to go to Meeting for worship. And who could forget the etiquette classes, where we learned which fork to use for what course and how to properly shake hands? It was here that I constantly heard the phrase, “Children are meant to be seen and not heard. Actions speak louder than words.” Religion, Christianity and faith were taught to be a private manner. They were not something to talk about at dinner parties, at school or in the workplace. Faith was between one person and God, not something to gab about in social circles. “Let your actions do the talking,” I was always told. “No one should have to ask you what you believe.” This brings me to our week’s reading on context and public theology. It seems as if the forbearers of my Southern heritage could have written these articles. As one of the authors writes of public theology, “…only one part of Christian theology is public in nature, and the rest is, somehow, private.” How would contextual and public theology look in my North Carolinian Southern culture? Instead of a Bro’town episode depicted in New Zealand, would it instead be a Downton Abbey-like series with immense Southern dialect, proper manners, tight-lips in public and intense comedic discussions reserved for the privacy of one’s four walls? To be honest, before now I have not read much about “public theology” and “context theology,” though, because of my Southern heritage, I do believe I have lived in the midst of these concepts, in a unique way, without exactly knowing what to call it. I tend to think that the writing and testimony of a Southern American Christian, in most cases, is vastly different than that of a Haitian or a New Zealander. And I believe the same could be said for those I have yet to meet or am just getting to know. After all, we have spoken in this forum many times on the importance of building relationships and knowing your audience. Wouldn’t these previous conversations fall right in line with context theology? I think of theology as simply faith seeking understanding. I also believe that scripture has not changed, nor has God changed. Because of this, I have to believe that the only variance of our experiences of God and understanding of the Christian faith is the place and culture from which our experiences and understandings are based. Theologian Stephen Bevans seems to agree,
“There is no such thing as ‘theology’; there is only contextual theology, the attempt to understand Christian faith in terms of a particular context is really a theological imperative. Contexualization is not something on the fringes of the theological enterprise. It is at the very center of what it means to do theology in today’s world.”
This calls for the Christian, the missionary, the leader to be prepared for speaking the languages of faith, hope and love in every culture. I believe the way we ought to do this is by responding to and sharing the grace of God shown to us through our own stories in a contextual, authentic and appropriate way. In addition, we ought to build relationships and be authentic so that we help create an ethic of mutual forbearance. The chief end to this would be,
“the goal of finding a more inclusive, genuinely ecumenical and catholic way of identifying a valid, viable inner convictional and ethical framework on which to build the moral and spiritual architecture of our increasingly common life.”
This way of living life together is inherent upon making ourselves vulnerable and is problematic for many, missionaries and politicians alike, because of the chance of vulnerability in sharing their actual stories, not their rote methods, in their attempts at having an impact on the listeners. Because they fail to present their story in their context in an authentic way, they instead present an unauthentic view of themselves, which can lead to false hope that does not last. Just like my Southern upbringing dictates, there are those that try to live things out without speaking out about their own story. They are truly “seen but not heard”. Through my travels, I have encountered those who use their hundred-year-old methods but fail to share their stories and therefore fail to open an honest conversation about true needs and what it would take to make a lasting impact. Maybe instead of worrying about the material of your suit, the freshness of your shrimp or your mother’s last name as I grew up learning to do, we ought to be seen and heard talking about our stories in their context and therefore causing intentional and authentic change. Reference: Bevans, Stephen. “Contextual Theology as Theologial Imperative” in Models of Contextual Theology. 1-10. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Press, 2002. Garner, Stephen. “Morningside for Life!: Contextual Theology Meets Animated Television in Bro’town.” Studies in World Christianity 17, no. 2 (2011): 156-74. Marshall, Christopher. “What Language Shall I Borrow?: The Bilingual Dilemma of Public Theology.” Stimulus 13, no. 3 (2005): 11‐18. Stackhouse, Max. “Civil Religion, Political Theology, and Public Theology: What’s the Difference?” Political Theology 5:3, (2004): 275-293.