Thursday, January 27, 2011

What is God's View of Culture? Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of the series "What is God's View of Culture?".  To prepare for this post, I read a couple of chapters in Paul G. Hiebert's Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, and re-read portions of Gerald R. McDermott's Can Evangelicals Learn From World Religions: Jesus, Revelation and Religious Traditions.  Both are fascinating books, especially McDermott's (he is also the author of God's Rivals: Why Has God Allowed Different Religions?- which is also a great book I've read- and Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths).  Other helpful resources are One Church, Many Tribes and Culture, Christ, & Kingdom Study Guide, both by Richard Twiss.

In my last post I discussed how human culture is a general expression of God's image in humanity, and how God influenced all cultures by giving them languages and assigning geographical locations for each one.  Today, I want to examine how followers of Christ should regard the ideas and beliefs expressed in the arts of other religions (I'm not going to get into a discussion about the art forms themselves, rather only the ideas and beliefs expressed through them).  In discussing indigenous art, the real topic is always theology and belief, rather than the art forms themselves, because the art forms are merely expressions of a culture's beliefs.  So that's a point to keep in mind as we continue.

Continuing deeper from last week's post, we should next look at the idea of "truth," also called "redemptive analogies" in other religions.  A redemptive analogy is a practice or understanding embedded in a culture which can be used to demonstrate the Gospel, explain who God is, etc., in whole or part.  It was first defined by Don Richardson in Eternity in Their Hearts.  Many missionaries advocate the use of these analogies as ways to contextualize the Gospel so that a particular culture can better understand it by comparing it to something with which they are already familiar.

So where do these analogies come from, and should we really use them to help communicate the Gospel (it's one thing to say that culture is generally a reflection of God's image in us, but aren't most non-Christian beliefs and practices basically evil?).  Are redemptive analogies: (1) simply creations of human beings who are unconsciously expressing fragments of God's truth from general revelation?  (2) "memories” of direct or indirect contact between God and their ancestors via dreams/visions/revelations/etc.?  (3) are they due to previous contact with Christians or Jews, forgotten to history?  I supposed any of these are possible, and probably have happened at one time or another (e.g., for #2 see Eternity in Their Hearts; Spirit of the Rainforest by Mark Andrew Ritchie, p. 24-25; One Church Many Tribes, p. 141-157).

Gerald R. McDermott posits that regardless of how a culture might have encountered some degree of (non-saving) knowledge about God, "this does not mean that there is direct continuity from the religions to Christ, but it does mean that the religions may be used by God to prepare their devotees to understand and receive Christ" (p. 103).  He believes that such limited knowledge is ultimately due to the sovereign, intentional will of God, in part based on verses like John 1: 3-4, 9 (apparently he fleshes out this idea more in chapter 6 of Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods).  I know that there are plenty of opinions about God's will regarding truths found in other religions, but I won't digress about that here.  McDermott asserts that these redemptive analogies, or "revealed types," are "akin to the types that Jonathan Edwards found in many world religions and the 'good dreams' and 'great stories' that C.S. Lewis saw scattered throughout the myths of the world" (p. 113).  Types fall somewhere between general revelation and special revelation, but "will not tell us new truths that subvert what God has revealed in Christ" (p. 117).

One quote of McDermott's (based on the writings of Gavin D'Costa) that I really liked regarding redemptive analogies is that "they may give us hints of hidden riches within the Trinity that we had not previously seen, but such insight will be the unveiling of what is already lying within the revelation we possess, not a new revelation coming from outside of what God disclosed of Himself through Israel and Jesus" (p. 71-72).  I think this goes along with the idea that the parts of the body of Christ build up one another, as I mentioned previously in this post.  Believers who come out of nonwestern religious backgrounds have much to teach us in the west about God.

Based on the points above, my conclusion on the use of redemptive analogies from other religions in contextualized art is that it is fine to do so, but preferably by a missionary who has lived among the culture long enough to understand them reasonably well ("Critical Incarnational Living").  Even better is when such contextualization can be agreed upon by a unified group (church) of native believers (whether the artist is native or not).  Hiebert calls this process critical contextualization (a pdf article on the subject by Hiebert can be downloaded here, once you register for free).  It consists of native believers analyzing native practices or products (e.g., visual art) along with corresponding biblical passages, and reaching a prayerful decision about what to use and how.  Hiebert wisely notes: "To involve the people in evaluating their own culture draws upon their strength.  They know their own culture better than the missionary and are in a better position to critique it, once they have biblical instruction.  Moreover, they will grow spiritually by learning to apply scriptural teaching to their own lives" (Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, p. 187).

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