Context Realization: Gospel and Culture

The gospel is the message of God’s forgiving and liberating love embodied in the person and saving work of Jesus (Rom 1:15). Yet, this eternal truth needs to be communicated to all people, situated in their particular place, at a specific time and cultural context, i.e. historical moment. Culture refers to a people group’s way of life and relates to all aspects of individual and social well-being. The gospel recognizes cultural diversity and social units. The uniqueness of each culture is meant to reveal God’s manifold grace and reflect his glory. While human thinking has been distorted and cultures marred by the effects of the fall, people are born and brought up in a culture that they own, which in turn shapes their worldview or perspective on reality.

modernculture.pngOur missionary imperative to communicate Christ to Indians is a challenging task with the many different views of “Christ,” ways to share the gospel, and worldviews that must relate to the same message. This calls for adaptation and translation of God’s ancient, unchanging Word to our constantly changing world, which defines the boundaries of context both in terms of locality and temporality. So, for cities like Bangalore, the process of contextualization implies paying attention to the native local context (indigenous culture) as well as the influence of global market trends (homogenized culture). Sociocultural change matters whether triggered by grass root struggles for justice or by globalization. Having shown the legitimacy of contextual theologies, let me suggest how we may go about doing it…The potential there is to share the gospel in relevant and applicable ways to a respondent culture cannot be underestimated. Cultures have core values and belief systems that the gospel addresses, permeates, affirms, confronts, and transforms. Doing theology contextually is an appropriate method to incarnate the gospel. All theology is inherited, adapted; in a word: contextual. In the doctrine of the Incarnation, God in Christ did not become a Christian, he became human. Jesus’ teachings were tailored to meet the existential needs of his audience and he spoke in categories that arose out of the day-to-day realities of his Jewish context. His mighty works were effective in meeting people’s spiritual, physical and relational needs. There is a locality to Christian tradition in different cultures that inevitably interacts with the diverse, yet distinct and nuanced understandings of the sacred. One cannot “cut and paste” dogmatic, westernized forms of theology without it soon becoming, meaningless, culturally insensitive, or at worst, oppressive.

Human experience and stories are important in contextual theologies and these elements in theological reflection receive particular emphasis without abandoning commitment to our common humanity. Also, the Church’s tradition or teachings on the Spirit’s ongoing work is considerable. Christianity, as a historical and apostolic faith, learns from and by critiquing older traditions and draws from self-understandings and unique experiences to contribute to the rich tapestry of global Christianity. Further, human reason is crucial to achieve a fair, self-critical articulation of beliefs.

Contextualization engages in a variety of styles of thinking familiar to its own context, but seeks to make sense to the outsider. Though culturally sensitive and engaged, it is theologically critical in what it adapts. The Bible is interpreted to allow interaction with cultural experiences, which helps the examiner to read Scripture with fresh or non-traditional eyes and allows God’s revealed truth to both judge and be judged by local beliefs and cultural practices.

While we heed the cries and concerns of our contemporary culture, being cognizant of our evangelical heritage, we must indeed be faithful to the Bible’s message. Making the Bible our normative holds promise. Gospel truth stands the test of time and experience and there is ample reason why it should be grounded in what God has said and Christians know in an experiential way.

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