Contextual Theology: On Doing More than Reflecting on Movies with Bible Verses

It used to be that doing contextual theology meant reflecting on popular movies in sermons. Barth supposedly said that the pastor must preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. But cultural engagement demands so much more today. And it has become so much more essential. The dominant culture is no longer Christian. We must now understand the socio cultural orbits, the economics, power structures, what drives a culture if indeed we are to respond to the cultural issues pressing in on us. We must know the places we live if are to proclaim the gospel in ways that connect.

Contextual Theology has sometimes received a bad rap. The idea of doing theological reflection off one’s culture suggests we are simply looking for God in the culture happenings around us. Implied is that we do this apart from special revelation. Culture drives what we think about God and the Bible necessarily takes a back seat.. And so, contextual theology therefore is liberal. Get it?

But this is oversimplistic. This might be a fair critique of contextual theology done in one particular way, but this is only one way (and I would argue the most naïve of the ways) of doing contextual theology. The fact is, even the most conservative of us, even those among us focused most exclusively on the Bible as the only true source of knowing God, must eventually do contextual theology. As I say every once in a while to Scot McKnight and other Biblical studies people at Northern Seminary (where I teach), it is not enough to know the Bible (in its own context), we must be able to extend its truth into the culture (i.e. the current context). We must proclaim gospel in the language and terms of the culture we find ourselves in so that the gospel can be heard, understood and received. Everybody has got to do contextual theology! We must proclaim gospel in the language and terms of the culture we find ourselves in. Click To Tweet

The most intuitive way North Americans think about doing contextual theology is as individuals engaging the context from one of two different starting points: the context or the Bible. In both cases the individual as expert starts in one place and goes to the second. For instance, the individual starts by inhabiting the culture, making observations, and then moving to God, reflecting on those observations based on the received understandings of God and how He works. Evangelicals do this when they reflect on movies with Bible verses. Protestant liberals do this when they reflect on experiences of the divine using experiential categories of God – like the infinite, the good, love, or the “ground of being.” The locus for God is in the culture, from which we reflect using our received categories. We might call this the correlative model (after Tillich). The weakness in this model is that our view of God can easily be absorbed by the culture we sit in resulting in a cultural god. We lose the redemptive transformative God in the process.

Those who start from the other starting point – the received categories – often begin with the Bible. We read the truth about God off the Bible and then enter a culture and seek to translate the truth into the language and culture symbols in the host culture. The locus for God is in the received tradition and/or Scripture, from which we then seek to find or even impose these understandings into a host culture. We might call this the revelatory model (after Barth?). The weakness here in this model is a presumptive impulse. Often we assume that we do not need to understand the culture and its language on its own terms before we try to translate the terms of the Bible into it. The culture is messed up. It is under the reign of Satan. We have the truth. Enough said.

Over against these modern ways based in the individual, I am prone to contextual models based in a community as a way of life inhabiting a context long enough to become present and conversant in language and socio-dynamics of a context. It takes a community to translate the gospel for a culture, especially if there are not yet words or practices in which to make sense of the gospel story. It is only in a community of belief and practice where a way of life can give visible witness so that what we say can make sense to onlookers. From this space, we can dialogue piece by piece with our neighbors, and a vital interaction with what God is doing can take place. We might call this the ‘immigrant” model (after Yoder? Hauerwas? Etc.). It is as if we transplant a way of life among a community, and start to engage our culture, assimilating, recognizing the goodness, embracing the things celebrated, yet engaging, even resisting and challenging the powers, pains, economics around us. It takes a community to translate the gospel for a culture. Click To Tweet

Words are not enough. It is important to recognize that it is our constant temptation to separate a word from its way of life, make it into a concept, by which we can rally people around it. We believe in the Bible! Morality! Justice! Soon this word becomes an object of ideology by which we make war with people. The only way to break out of this antagonism is to return the word to its context in everyday life and use it to navigate life “with” people. As people see us live the Bible, moral life and justice in all the streams of our lives, the challenge and goodness of the salvation in Christ becomes visible. They ask us to give an account of the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15). We learn how to speak, communicate and invite in the language/experience and culture of those around us. It is the church “among” the cultures as Mission versus the church “apart” from or the church “of” the cultures. It seems this dynamic is especially important to understand as we engage in mission in post Christendom settings.

So contextual theology is important. In the past the church in North America could rely on everybody speaking the same language. We could reasonably assume the Story of God in Christ was part of the scripts of culture. The church could assume a degree of authority whereby we could speak and be heard about what is true. But, alas, in large parts of N America, that culture is gone. We’ve been thrown into a myriad of developing post Christendom cultures where we must become aware of our contexts, the power, the pains, the economics, the values, the signs of significance at work in the cultures around us.

I do a lot of this kind of theological work on this blog. Join me eh? Sign up for the RSS feed that is specific to this blog or (better yet) the feed for all of Missio’s writers. Let’s work on this together!

How we shape communities in context/Mission is part of what we do in D Min in Contextual Theology at Northern Seminary. A degree for the training of pastors to lead churches into mission. Interested then contact me via my blog or at the Northern site.

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