Monday, June 24, 2013

The Method of Biblical Theology

J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books are one grand story. The entire work, not including The Hobbit, contains three volumes (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King) . Each volume really is comprised of two books. For instance, the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring, contains 1) a prologue that introduces the entire series of books; 2) Book 1, called The Ring Sets Out (or The First Journey); and 3) Book 2, called The Ring Goes South (or The Journey of the Nine Companions). Each of these books is split into about 10-12 chapters with such names as “A Long-expected Party,” “The Shadow of the Past,” and “Three is Company.” Each of these chapters tell a main story that somehow fits into the entire storyline of The Lord of the Rings. Additionally, they contain sub-plots, background anecdotes, and digressions (seeming rabbit-trails), all for the purpose of making the grand story complete.

Now try to remember the first time you read the books (or, regrettably, only watched the movies). You didn’t know exactly how the story would progress. You didn’t know the ending because you hadn’t read it before. Incidentally, however, we all really did know how the story would end. From the very beginning, we knew that the impossible task that had to be done would be done. Can you imaging Frodo failing his quest? So in the minds of us readers, the most pressing issue was not what would happen but how it would happen. And the reason that Tolkien is so successful in making his readers continue reading is that fantastic events happen, tension builds, and everything happens so miraculously yet so plausibly.

But think again back to the first time you read the story. At each point in the story, you didn’t know exactly what would happen next. You were given hints and clues. Events were foreshadowed and prophesied. Yet you were left to your own perceptiveness in reading the details to anticipate future events. Both we readers and the characters in the story knew only what had been revealed up to that point in the history of Middle Earth and in their own part of it. None of us knew the future. To make things more difficult, the first time you read these books, undoubtedly you missed a lot of the details. Some of the themes, symbols, and patterns evaded your notice. You understanding was cloudy and incomplete.

But image something impossible for a moment. Imagine yourself rereading all preceding chapters one or twice or five times before you moved on to the next chapter. And before moving on to book two, you reread all the previous books 3-4 times.

Of course, you have better things to do with your time, but if you had done such a thing, you would have become an expert of each book, and the subsequent books would have made much more sense as their events unfolded. Indeed, you would eventually have large portions of it memorized. You would recognize how each smaller portion, every tiny detail fits into the entirety of the story. You would understand more about why Tolkien told the story exactly the way he did. You would learn to think like Tolkien, and you would understand the world he created in the way that he, as the creative author of Middle Earth and its history, wants you to understand it.

Biblical Theology is a method of interpreting the Bible. The type of reading I have just described largely describes the method of Biblical Theology. History is the story that God creates and tells. Thus, history has a purpose and is moving toward a specific goal. The Bible is the literary masterpiece that God wrote to tell that story. God is the author of this multi-volume epic, which tells one grand story with many sub-plots. Like The Lord of the Rings, the Bible also contains background anecdotes and seeming digressions. Throughout the work, the divine Author recounts fantastic events and builds tension in ways that are both miraculous and plausible. And so we should read it in a way similar to how we read The Lord of the Rings. Yet, as an author, God is even more successful than Tolkien. No time is wasted when we read each portion over and over in order to understand how they fit into the grand story, to come to know the mind of the divine Author, and to learn to think like Him. As we read, we told a certain amount about what history look like in the end, but the exciting project is discovering how God brings history to that end.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Cultural Imperialism: A Mission of the Church

As I think of the possibility of missions work in my future, I have been considering my own understanding of Christian mission. I have begun reading The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative by Christopher Wright, which sets out to “demonstrate that a strong theology of the mission of God provides a fruitful hermeneutical framework within which to read the whole Bible” (26). The book comes highly recommended as a work of biblical theology, which purports to turn the hermeneutical key for “unlocking the Bible’s grand narrative,” i.e. the mission of God.

I’m a little surprised that the initial chapters of the book relate to a philosophy of missionary work. (I’m actually reading it because it is a standard work on biblical theology.) In one of these initial chapters, Wright grapples with the idea of contextualizing the gospel in the work of mission(s). This is the idea that while the gospel “has an unchanging core because of its historical rootedness in the Scriptures and the Christ event,” yet “it has been [and should be] received, understood, articulated, and lived out in myriad ways, both vertically through history and horizontally in all the cultures in which Christian faith has taken [or takes] root” (46).

In the context of this discussion comes the sticky issue of how Western missionaries have frequently imposed Western cultural expressions on cultures to which those expressions are completely foreign. The flaw to avoid is confusing the “unchanging core” of the gospel with unnecessary baggage of Western culture. Wright says that “the West” is “a particular context of human culture, not necessarily any better or any worse than any other context for reading the Bible and doing theology” (42). This statement implies that he views “the West” as simply the “culture” of northern Europeans (and Americans), especially of the post-Enlightenment manifestations of it. According to this line of thinking, a missionary needs to remove the gospel from his own cultural husk and not export those trappings as part of the message he delivers.

Another expression of very caution was recently recommended to me in a blog post by R. C. Sproul Jr. called “Contextualizing Missions.” In that article Sproul Jr. uses the example of missionaries who into “untamed interiors” haul musical organs along with the gospel. But it isn’t always a musical instrument that we export. Missionaries are also guilty of imposing “our own traditions [and] our own way of doing things.” In contrast, the task of missionaries is to “grow and encourage the church of Jesus Christ,” to “grow and encourage the local believers,” and to “encourage them to follow Jesus, not us.” We are not to go “with programs, but with the gospel.” The missionary’s goal ought to be to “win the lost,” not “to remake ... churches or cultures in [his own] image.” Sproul Jr. is witty and uses rhetorical flourishes to make a point, but his thesis is clear: a missionary needs to know “the difference between a cross and an organ.”

The point of view of Wright and Sproul Jr. has some merit. It is important not to give unnecessary offense for the sake of our favorite method or style. It is important that we know exactly what the gospel is. We need to know the difference between the gospel and implications of the gospel. We need to discern between what a newly-planted church is ready for and what is necessary for planting a church. We need to be open to the fact that we cannot always offer the “complete package” to the first generation.

Yet, implicit in these view are at least four undesirable implications about culture and the gospel. First, all cultures are viewed as possessing neutral trappings that eventually create an external husk for the gospel. Styles are seen as realities predetermined by the target cultures, and missionaries should not impose the unfamiliar styles of their own culture upon people from another. Yet, cultural expressions are not neutral and may be evaluated by biblical norms. Putting the gospel into an unholy husk is a compromise that should be avoided. We should be very careful about assuming that people will be able to disassociate their cultural expressions from their former paganism. Missionaries and evangelists offer an alternative. Why should we expect the gospel and its implications to be familiar to a pagan? This critique of not recognizing the paganness of cultures untouched by the gospel goes hand in hand with my previous critique of not recognizing the churchness of Western culture.

A second implication, which I highly doubt anyone actually believes but which should still be addressed, is the idea that cultures and their expressions and styles cannot be reformed or formed by the gospel. Rather, cultures are treated as givens, which must not be tampered with. Indeed, tampering with them is a form of cultural imperialism, a missionary flaw to be scrupulously avoided. Yet, of course, this is not true. And missionaries, domestic or foreign, should be careful not to pull a classic “bait and switch” in their presentation of the gospel: get them in with familiar, though pagan, cultural expressions, then work on changing them.

Third, these exhortations for contextualization imply that the church itself does not contain a culture, that the cultural expressions that developed in “the West” did so less because of the church and more because of the geography or whatever else might have changed the barbarians of western Europe into a civilized society. In contrast, I affirm that the church itself has a culture. The church has not always been reactionary, borrowing raw material from surrounding culture. There was a time when the church created culture, governed by the desire to make sanctuary worship beautiful and glorious. And so godly, artistic, creative men and women invented and created. And so also architectures, musical genres, and thought and behavior patterns were born. And these inventions, originally made for the purpose of beautifying and glorifying sanctuary worship, spilled over into the larger society.

Thus, I think that the term “Western” as a characterization of a culture can be unhelpful. The church largely created what we think of as “Western culture.” So why should we see those cultural expressions, which the church developed over the course of over 1,000 years out of an impetus to make worship beautiful, as irrelevant and undesirable for missionary work? Do we really expect foreign converts to start that 1,000-year clock over and in the meantime to borrow their cultural expressions from the surrounding pagan culture? Should missionaries promote this out of a fear of being accused of being cultural imperialists?

Or perhaps the church did it wrong in the West. Let’s go back to example of musical organs. We don’t really think that the missionaries to the barbarians of northern Europe discovered the organ from the barbarians, do we? Surely, we don’t regret the invention (or progressive improvement) of the organ in both the church service and the concert hall, do we? (Obviously, some churches throughout history have abuse their use of the organ. But cannot any good thing be abused?) The fact that the organ is now associated with the West and not just the church is very telling about how the church forms culture. The very example used for imperialism of Western culture is not inherent to “the West” at all, but rather the church!

(I know the original organ was most likely not invented by the church, but it was improved by it. What we now think of as an organ is largely a product of the church and is a far cry from its Greek prototype. But this particular instrument was chosen and developed because 1) it makes a beautiful sound, 2) it can function like a complete orchestra though played by one person, and 3) not having a decaying tone, it is ideal for accompanying and beautifying singing in worship.)

Finally, and closely related to everything else I have said about the missionary endeavor, I would ask, what is the gospel? I question the understanding of the gospel and the project of spreading it as simply getting individuals saved by getting them to ascribe to certain propositions. Rather, spreading the gospel should be viewed more as the building of a kingdom. I agree with Sproul Jr. that missionaries should encourage people to “follow Jesus,” but I want to think of Jesus as the totus Christus, the “whole Christ,” Head and body. If our understanding of salvation and the gospel is tied up with our doctrine of the church (and it should be), then indeed we are offering people more than individual salvation. We are offering them life as citizens in the kingdom of light, a complete package of Jesus-church culture, practices, music, history, story, and affections. And in this sense, we need to own up to reality by pleading guilty to being cultural imperialists, not of Western culture per se but of the culture Jesus has been nurturing and developing through His Spirit for almost 2,000 years.

Even with the above four caveats, I still submit to the warnings by older and wiser men concerning contextualization. Obviously, a missionary must fit the gospel message into a specific linguistic context. One of the first tasks of a new missionary needs to be to learn the language. (He might then begin laboring to mould even the language by the Bible, as was done in the West.) Missionaries must also understand the historical milieu of his target country in order to understand how the culture has grown into its current state. Also, geography and accessibility can severely limit what a missionary can do. Bamboo musical instruments are usually not practical in regions where it does not grow. (Thus, I am not arguing that missionaries ought to take organs into the untamed interiors.) Finally, missionaries should apply with discernment the ancient practice of plundering the Egyptians, that is, using materials from the surrounding society for the purposes of building up and beautifying worship. Israel used the plunder from Egypt to build and decorate the tabernacle. Medieval churchmen snatched and then improved upon an instrument like an organ in order to make the singing in congregational worship more glorious. We are welcome to knock on the gates of hell, pilfer the clever devices of the pagans, and transform them for worship, and therefore culturally formative, purposes. In these ways can missionaries continue the church’s work of being culturally creative rather then reactive and perpetually dependent.

One final point. All these observations can apply to a church-planting pastor in his own country. Using styles that are familiar to the surrounding pagan and rebellious culture for the sake of converts may produce some numbers. They might even fill church buildings with Christians, but ones who remain in a perpetual state of immaturity. Always keeping their eye on the surrounding culture for their cues, purportedly in order to be relevant to the world, these contextualizing church-planters undermine the work that is the most relevant for the creating and transformation of culture, which is sanctuary worship of Almighty God, a strange and dangerous task. It’s time for the church to recover her project of creativity and invention for the sake of glorious sanctuary worship and thereby ultimately for the life of the world.