Growing in cultural awareness has been a progressive experience in my life journey. I can say with certainty today that cultural context is more complex and intricate than I had ever anticipated. It shapes us more than what we realize. Let me share a few experiences as I reflect on this week’s reading.
LANGUAGE: Even though Spanish is my native language, when my family moved to Mexico to serve as missionaries, a simple greeting would often invite the question, “Where are you from?” I soon realized that my Spanish was Chilean Spanish, so I had to contextualize my language to the new culture in which I was ministering. Eventually I stopped using certain words, I learned new words, and I learned to pronounce some words a little differently. I discovered that effective missionaries know how to contextualize their language.
MOVIES: Later, while leaving in Texas and functioning in English, I discovered that several of the movies that I loved growing up had a different name in English. For instance, I loved the movie “The War of the Galaxies.” Perhaps it is one of your childhood favorites too, except that you know it as Star Wars. How about the movie, “The Rebellious Nun”? It is a famous musical that you know as “The Sound of Music.” I discovered that in order for movies to be marketable in a different cultural context, the names have to be adapted because words carry different nuances in different cultures. Successful movie producers know how to contextualize their movie titles.
FOOD: How about food? Do you like Hellmann’s Mayo? Many people that travel internationally have experienced that the same product may not taste the same when purchased in a different country. My father, who worked for a company that produced many international brands, explains that companies conduct flavor studies in order to adjust the taste of the product to the different audiences. It is the same brand—just a slightly different nuance in flavor. I discovered that experienced food companies know how to contextualize their flavor.
MATH: How about Math? We think of math as an exact science, so perhaps the idea of contextualizing math may initially sound illogical. Yet, let me ask you to solve the following equation. 120:6=____. If you studied Math in Chile you would know that the answer is 20, because that is the way we write a division. I discovered that contextualization is not limited to language and taste, but even the way we write mathematical equations changes from culture to culture. It is the same Mathematical calculation—just a different process to get to the same answer.
THEOLOGY: How about theology? I used to think that theology was a different beast altogether; one that transcends culture. However, Matthew Michael has successfully shown the need for contextualized theology in his book, Christian Theology and African Traditions. Contextualizing theology does not mean sacrificing sound doctrine for syncretism. Rather, it means adapting the nuances of theological reflection to its cultural context. It is about building a theological framework that addresses the cultural worldview and gives answers to issues faced by people in a given culture. Failing to do so may render the church irrelevant and ineffective. Irrelevant, because it fails to address questions that are important for people in a given cultural context. Ineffective, because it fails to transform the distorted worldview that Christians inherit from their cultural context.
As Michael reflects on systematic theology in each chapter of his book, he addresses the worldview that Africans have in each category, tailoring the theological reflection to the African worldview. He calls church leaders to pay attention to the nuances of African Christianity in order to be relevant and effective in an era of unprecedented church growth in the African continent. He does so in a systematic way that is biblically balanced and culturally insightful.
If the church is to succeed worldwide, it cannot be an import from the west with a west title and a west flavor, but it has to be contextualized like linguists, movie producers, mathematicians and the food industry have already discovered. Consequently, effective theologians also know how to contextualize their theology to the culture in which the church is planted. This is an important lesson to learn as I continue to lead Ethnos Bible Church in a diverse context that is multilingual, transcultural, and multigenerational.