Monday, July 30, 2012

Tim Keller on Contextualization


The other day I came across Tim Keller's book Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, which features three chapters on contextualization.  Chapter 10 is called "Active Contextualization," and is essentially a printed version of Keller's lecture that I posted about here.   I haven't read the rest of the book, so I can't comment on the other two chapters about contextualization, but Chapter 10 is definitely worth a read.  In it Keller discusses how to practically approach the process of contextualizing the Gospel in any society, whether one's own birth culture, another society, or even a different generation.  Although Keller's ministry context is Manhattan, the points that he makes in this chapter could be applied to any place or culture, western or nonwestern.

Keller begins his explanation of contextualization with the analogy of highway engineers removing a huge rock by drilling holes in it and filling them with explosives in order to blow it up.  Keller then writes:  "To contextualize with balance and successfully reach people in a culture, we must both enter the culture sympathetically and respectfully (similar to drilling) and confront the culture where it contradicts biblical truth (similar to blasting)" (119).  He goes on for the rest of the chapter to unpack how this can be done.

Crucifixion/Eucharist by
Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Bauman,
c. 1987.
I think this idea is something that those on opposite ends of the contextualization spectrum have forgotten: the purpose of contextualization is to communicate the Gospel, not to accomodate every idea in a culture, nor to demonize everything in it either.  I love that Keller uses comparison and contrast of cultural values with the Bible in order to help explain what the Gospel is, and isn't.  By first honoring biblical ideas (redemptive analogies) found in a society, its members are better able to consider how the Gospel affirms them, while simultaneously challenging them to reconsider other beliefs which may be blocking their acceptance of Christ's atonement for them.

Keller goes on to explain that active contextualization is a process consisting of three overlapping parts: (1) entering the culture, (2) challenging the culture, and (3) appealing to the listeners.  Entering the culture involves immersing yourself "in the questions, hopes, and beliefs of the culture so you can give a biblical, gospel-centered response to its questions... Ultimately, the most important source for learning will be the hours and hours spent in close relationships with people, listening to them carefully" (121).  He states that when entering

a culture, another main task is to discern its dominant worldviews or belief systems, because contextualized gospel ministry should affirm the beliefs of the culture wherever it can be done with integrity. When we enter a culture, we should be looking for two kinds of beliefs. The first are what I call “A” beliefs, which are beliefs people already hold that, because of God’s common grace, roughly correspond to some parts of biblical teaching... However, we will also find “B” beliefs— what may be called “defeater” beliefs— beliefs of the culture that lead listeners to find some Christian doctrines implausible or overtly offensive.  “B” beliefs contradict Christian truth directly at points we may call “B” doctrines (123).

Painting by Nyoman Darsane

We must therefore first affirm the culture's "A" beliefs, and then use these beliefs to challenge them to accept the "B" doctrines.  Keller further explains:

Every culture (including our own) can readily grasp part of the truth but not all of it. And we know that biblical truth, because it is from God, is coherent and consistent with itself. What we refer to as “A” and “B” doctrines are equally true and interdependent, and they follow from each other. The confrontation occurs because every culture is profoundly inconsistent, conforming to some biblical truths but not to others. If those in a particular culture hold certain “A” beliefs, they are inconsistent not to hold “B” beliefs because the Scriptures, as the revealed truth of God, are always consistent. These inconsistencies reveal the points where a culture is vulnerable to confrontation (124)... We reveal inconsistencies in the cultural beliefs and assumptions about reality. With the authority of the Bible we allow one part of the culture— along with the Bible— to critique another part. The persuasive force comes from basing our critique on something we can affirm within the culture (125).

Lastly, Keller urges us to appeal to listeners by asking, "“You see this ‘A’ belief you have? The Bible says the same thing— so we agree. However if ‘A’ is true, then why do you not believe ‘B’? The Bible teaches ‘B,’ and if ‘A’ is true, then it is not right, fair, or consistent for you to reject ‘B.’ If you believe this— how can you not believe that?”" (125).


I love how Keller summarizes these ideas towards the end of the chapter, especially the last sentence in the following quote: "Having entered a culture and challenged its idols, we should follow the apostle Paul in presenting Christ to our listeners as the ultimate source of what they have been seeking... Put another way, we show our listeners that the plotlines of their lives can only find a resolution, a “happy ending,” in Jesus. We must retell the culture’s story in Jesus" (130).

How do we as artists– if we are approaching a culture different from our own– apply all of this to our art?  Certainly we can affirm the beauty of a society in our work, those things that remind us of biblical truths– especially of God's love for them.  I like the idea of "strategically" choosing topics or themes for our art which either honor these "A" beliefs, or consciously challenge the "B" beliefs, or both simultaneously!  If you or an artist you know are working as a missionary somewhere in the world, how have you engaged in artistic contextualization of the Gospel?

Some of the contemporary indigenous Christian artists that seem to do a wonderful job of engaging in this process include Nyoman Darsane of Bali (which myself and others have blogged about before) and Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Bauman of Australia (whom I will blog more about at a later time).

I think where this balanced form of contextualization is pursued– where the Gospel itself is used as the measuring stick against which all other beliefs and practices are measured– there would be fewer errors of over-contextualization (i.e., syncretism) and under-contextualization (i.e., promoting one's cultural form of Christianity to those of another culture).


1 comment:

  1. Not a bad discussion on Keller's part. I do cringe at the dynamite metaphor I would never want to use it myself. Especially since the blast would destroy everything. The A B idea has some merit but needs development. And I always despise the phrase "over contextualization". If the model is Jesus' incarnation, it isn't really possible to imitate him too much. Syncretism isn't the result of too much contextualization. It is the result of too little discipleship and does not require any intentional contextualization efforts in order to exist.

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