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The obvious-but-often-overlooked fact is that people can apprehend truth only in a cultural context. That’s why churches who send out missionaries simply must insist that those men and women study the new culture and find ways to connect the gospel message to that culture in the language, metaphors, and stories that mean something to its people.
A missiologist could give you examples all day long of situations that illustrate how missionaries have failed to engage cultures with the gospel. Instead, they have sometimes simply imposed western capitalism and clothing, European-American values and structures. If you saw The Mission, you can understand what I’m talking about. It begins with the depiction of European missionaries using the model of colonial empire to impose their religion on South American Indians. I have used clips from the movie in philosophy classes to illustrate ethnocentrism (i.e., the prejudiced view that a given “civilized” group has the right to impose its cultural beliefs, values, and lifestyle on others).
If you’ve read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, you would understand about missionary failure to understand and communicate in terms others would appreciate. Maybe you remember the funny story of the American Baptist missionary to the Congo who preached the gospel and called people to follow Jesus in baptism. When he announced a baptismal service at a nearby river, he was excited about the prospect of seeing souls pledge themselves to Christ. When the time came and no one came forward to be immersed, he became indignant over the faithlessness of those he had taught. What he hadn’t bothered to find out was that the river spot he chose – without consulting anyone from the village – was swarming with crocodiles.
The gospel message is – because of its divine origin – transcultural or supracultural but must be presented in the vocabulary of place and time. Preachers like me become obstacles to rather than vehicles for communication when we prance into a culture and arrogantly assume that our language, our methods, our metaphors, and our formulas are going to work there. Some of you have heard me tell about following another transient preacher who had taught a passionate lesson on why the King James Version of the Bible should be used to the exclusion other translations – to a Russian-language church in Moscow!
The language of our own culture has changed radically over the past quarter century. And, to use the language of Charles Kraft, we are all as immersed in culture as fish are in water. So if we are going to speak the gospel faithfully to our time and place, we have to give some serious thought to the fact that language, methods, and communication techniques have to be rethought. We have to be as responsible to the cross-cultural nature of communication within our highly developed, information-based, urbanized, wealthy, people under 30 years of age as missionaries going to Third-World, non-literate, nomadic, poor people.
What is our message? That Jesus has died, been buried, and raised again according to the Scriptures to bring us to God. This is the gospel, as summarized by Paul at 1 Corinthians 15:1ff. That different people react to that heaven-revealed, Spirit-empowered message differently based on their cultures is illustrated from that apostle’s same epistle to the Church of God at Corinth.
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart." Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Cor. 1:18-25).Doesn’t this text display Paul’s awareness that the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures of his day were different? That their reactions reflected that difference? That he took those reactions into account in approaching them?
Paul, a freeborn Roman citizen of Jewish extraction, was uniquely able to be a missionary to both cultures. So he worked from his personal background to connect with Jews as a Jew and with Gentiles as a Gentile. But his goal was always to preach Christ so as to break down the barrier between Jew and Gentile. He believed that one of the effects of the gospel was the creation of “one new humanity” (Eph. 2:15) out of once-alienated races and cultures.
With the dual understandings that (1) different cultures require different approaches with the gospel but that (2) all cultures are intended eventually to give way to a single new identity in Christ, what does all this mean to our place in history? Specifically, what does it mean about preaching the cross?
The culture of the past few centuries has changed the world forever. Nothing will take us back to the pre-Renaissance, pre-Enlightenment, pre-Reformation world. The turning of that corner in history empowered individuals against despotic governments and oppressive religion. Western civilization became a science-guided, science-adoring culture. The battle cry became this: Enough focused brainpower will solve all our problems! So we created laboratories and hospitals, big universities and multi-national corporations, democracy and capitalism, nonconformist individualism in ethics and radical autonomy in religion.
While the Mindset of Modernity has been productive and irreversible, taking it to its most extreme forms has been highly problematic. We became so reductionist in philosophy and religion that we made the physical sciences our sole arbiter of truth. We became so materialistic in lifestyle that drug use, sexual license, and money defined the good life. We became so arrogant in social and political life and European-American white males so dictated life in general that racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, and other forms of might-makes-right idolatry were threatening to destroy the world. The very scientific establishment that made the means to it now told us that we were only seconds to minutes away from the midnight of nuclear self-destruction.
During that time of radical Modernity, the gospel survived. Christian evangelists, scholars, and universities used the tools of science to argue for the historical, archaeological, and geographic accuracy of Scripture. True to the time and its demand for certitude, we engaged the “battle for inerrancy.” Denominations and local churches looked like corporations and businesses. Mission was undertaken to people groups rather than individuals because of the capitalist model of dollars-per-soul approaches to evangelism. Churches became essentially passive in missions – functioning very much as a group of investor-stockholders looking for a good return on capital outlay. It was the water in which we were swimming. It was the cultural context. But the Modernist mindset – while we were obliged to be discerning enough to engage it – eventually became the mindset of the Body of Christ and compromised its integrity.
An example that some missiologists offer of mass-market missions during that period is Rwanda. Eighty percent of the population of Rwanda claimed to be Christians, but it was Rwanda that witnessed such a terrible genocide in 1994. Christianity was little more than a thin veneer over old tribal hatreds. Deep, life-transforming apprenticeship to Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit had never taken place. Could the same thing explain the state-church phenomenon in Germany during the 1930s and ’40s? Might it clarify how Protestants and Catholics could murder, rape, and abhor so long in Northern Ireland?
Now the full dawn of Postmodernity – maybe we should just call it Antimodernity – has come. And it has its own problems and shortcomings. Every culture does! Although some people have opted to make it an “easy target” for condemnation, it is the water in which this generation swims. It is the mood of the university. It is the milieu in which our peers – especially the under-30 crowd – works and plays, reads books and watches TV, goes to the movies and relates to friends.
I suggest that perhaps it should be called Antimodernity for the simple reason that Postmodernity is less a series of systematic beliefs as it is a reaction against the Modern Era and its penchant for rational certainties, hierarchies of power, and minimization of human dignity – whether by science or corporation or religion. And it certainly has features that are appropriate as vehicles for communicating the gospel of Christ – so long as we don’t swallow the whole menu and compromise the message, as we sometimes did with Modernity.
For example, there are still some prominent scientists whose commitment to Modernity’s worship of the physical sciences has them affirm that human reason uncovers by its unaided power all that is worth knowing, anything that can be called “true.” The late Carl Sagan was a paradigm Modernist. He still has heirs in men such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen J. Gould, and Stephen Hawking. Their claim is that religion is a delusion held over from our superstitious, ignorant past and that ethics and metaphysical issues are quite literally non-sensical because they are non-sensible. But there are also physicists such as John Polkinghorne or the director of the Human Genome Project for the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins. They comment on the limits as well as powers of science; they see reasons for worship in the fields of their expertise.
During an interview for the Public Broadcasting Service, Dr. Collins made the sort of statement that reflects a faith that can and will thrive in the Postmodern world. Asked by the interviewer to describe his faith, he didn’t point to traditional theistic arguments or claim mathematical certitude about his conclusions. He used the sort of incarnational theology that one hears so commonly among Postmodern men and women. “I guess I'd call myself a serious Christian,” he began. “That is someone who believes in the reality of Christ's death and resurrection, and who tries to integrate that into daily life and not just relegate it to something you talk about on Sunday morning.”
“Incarnational theology” is God-talk (i.e., theology) personified (i.e., made real, put in human form). In its original and purest form, incarnational theology is this: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). In its secondary and immature corporate form, it is the church: “The church is Christ's body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence” (Eph. 1:23b MSG). In its secondary and immature personal forms, it is you and me: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:19b-20).
For more and more people in our world, truth is not the final line of a syllogism. It is not something found through formal argument. Truth is something engaging, real, and life-changing that links me with other spiritual explorers in a meaningful way. And this view of truth invites us to tell people about Jesus of Nazareth! He is truth enfleshed. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life – who changes one and all who follow him as apprentices and simultaneously links all his followers to one another as well.
Postmoderns like the convenience and ease of communication through cell phone, Internet, and text-messaging. But they also like the real presence of a warm-bodied human being for conversation and sharing. They dislike “religion” – which they associate with Modernity’s formulas, power structures, and abuse of persons – but are in search of authentic spirituality.
If you have been startled at the great numbers of young people in Vatican Square or gathered in other places around the world over the past few days in connection with John Paul II’s final hours, it is because of his transitional role in the Roman Catholic Church. As the head of a Modern institution whose rituals, creeds, structures, and treatment of persons have driven away many, his warm, good-humored, self-effacing, in-touch-with-people manner has been a welcome change for Roman Catholics. His strong leadership on behalf of freedom in Europe and social justice around the world has made him heroic in his frailty. He has confessed his church’s failures during the holocaust. He has spoken for peace and against economic exploitation. Therefore he has been seen as a spiritual force by many who had left the Roman Catholic Church – or repudiated religion in general. He was a missionary to a changed church culture!
The single perfect exemplar of spirituality is Jesus of Nazareth. He was no mystic in the mountains or guru protected from ordinary people living real life. He went to dinner parties and weddings. He told stories about such routine things as sweeping a house, planting seed, tending animals, and fishing – all of which he seems not only to know about but also to have experienced. He talked with people as they walked and ate and rested together. He cooked breakfast for his friends. He cried at funerals. He sweated. He got bellyaches and tired feet. He laughed. He got mad. In other words, Jesus was not raising the subject of God for discussion. He wasn’t presenting a plan for influencing a God who lives at a distance. He was God enfleshed – intimately involved in this world. He was God who cares so much about us that he would die before giving up hope for us. And it is living in the shadow of the cross of Jesus that makes his story believable and engaging and life-transforming to people you can influence.
As Anti-modernity, Postmodernity decries cold intellectualism, resents the abuse of power, and identifies with the weak and marginalized. Why, that sounds a lot like Jesus! He chided the Pharisees for thinking they would find eternal life in their scholarly disputes over Scripture. He was on the receiving end of the abuse of power. He was marginalized and excluded himself as a poor Jewish peasant under the Roman boot and finally put to death as an anti-Establishment agitator! Once you meet God at Calvary in the person the crucified Jesus, you will know that God has been among us. And you will know that you can live in relationship with him as a child of God forever.
In a piece titled “The Long Silence,” billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God's throne. There is a commotion somewhere near the front, and a pregnant teenager said, “What right does he have to sit in judgment on me? I didn’t do this to myself!” An African-American man tugs at his collar. “What about this?” he demands. “Lynched for no other ‘crime’ than being black!” Then another person pulls up a shirtsleeve to reveal a number tattooed there at Auschwitz – where she died. “We endured torture, beatings, and death in that awful place. And he proposes to judge me?”
And so it goes as one after another registers his or her complaint against God for the evil and suffering in the world he created. How lucky that he was in heaven where all is sweetness and light, where there is no weeping or fear, suffering or death. So what could he know of the things we humans have to endure here?
So they held a council and decided to put God on trial. “This will be his sentence,” they announced. “Let him be born to and live in poverty. Let him be part of an oppressed racial minority. Let the legitimacy of his birth be challenged for as long as he lives. Let him be given a task so great that even his family will declare him a lunatic for attempting it. Let his closest friends turn against him. Let him face false charges before a corrupt judge. Let him be tortured ever so cruelly. Let him be condemned to die. And let him experience the horror of abandonment in his final hours on Planet Earth!”
Suddenly, a long silence fell over the once-animated, once-eager, now-subdued crowd. They realized that God had already served his sentence. And because he has, we can believe that God has come near, been with us, and means it when he offers life and hope and healing to our broken world.
 He explored this obligation later: “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:19-23).
 Features of the discussion of Modernity versus Postmodernity here are framed by the discussion of six Christian leaders who were interviewed about “possibilities and limits of postmodernism” for Christianity Today at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/013/7.74.html.
 Adapted and summarized from anonymous quotation in John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), pp. 336-337.