The other day I wrote a long blog post in Japanese. I haven’t posted it yet; I have a feeling it might offend people. That isn’t why I haven’t posted it, though—I want to make sure I offend the right people to just the right degree: not too much, of course, but not too little either. Here I want to work through the philosophical underpinnings of that post—why I wrote it and what I’m thinking about it, and why I think it’s worth offending people over.
The focus of the post is on the use of language in Japanese churches; I think the way we speak to each other, and to God, in our churches is way, way too formal. But Japanese society is quite formal, ritualized, and form-oriented, so that fits, right? I’m currently also editing a book about creating a contextualized model of church for Japan, and one of the recommendations there is to create more formalized church rituals. These are both applications of contextualization to a formalized society.
But another section of the same book helps us to understand that, despite all our drive towards contextualization, the Church must not turn into the society it is part of:
When the Church’s “orientation to the world” is discussed, we must consider both her being-different-from-the-world and her continuity with the world. On this integrated foundation, the Church’s mediation functions to bridge the gap between Christ and the world by standing between them. The apostolic task can only be done if her being-in-the-world is a being-different-from-the-world… If her quality is earthly, she is no use as a witness, just like salt is that has lost its saltness.
The idea of contextualization is that it is “receptor-oriented”; in other words, it lets the world set the agenda. Of course putting it in those terms is a pretty harsh charge, and it’s usually answered by Hiebert’s concept of “Critical Contextualization.” But this does not go far enough; it is still ultimately positive towards cultural trends. The “critical” dimension extends simply to merely not letting every part of culture into the Church—some things should be rejected.
But the Church is also meant to challenge culture. There is room for another concept beyond contextualization; there should also be counter-contextualization.
For instance, where the culture is male-dominated, as it is in the West, the “contextual approach” taken by some old white men (who may be themselves disgusted at the concept of contextualization, but unfortunately also lack the self-awareness to realise when they themselves are swimming in the cultural tide) would be to push for a male-dominated, “masculine” faith; the counter-contextual approach, on the other hand, would be to remember that the Bible describes the Church in feminine terms, as the Bride of Christ, which legitimizes the possibility of exploring a softer, more feminine Christianity.
Similarly, when the culture is formal as it is here in Japan, a stiff, formal, impersonal church would certainly be one way to go with the culture. But where people are yearning for warm interpersonal relationships, the Church would be much more “salty” if it took the counter-contextual approach, dug out the adoption and family metaphors of the Church from the Bible, and actually started speaking to and treating its members like close family, instead of merely calling each other “brother” and “sister” and oops, I’m getting close to reproducing my Japanese rant here.
But the point is to look carefully at the culture and not merely say “which bits of this can we appropriate?” but also say “which bits of this do we need to provide a real alternative to?” Both approaches, contextualization and what for want of a better term I am calling counter-contextualization, require close reading both of the Bible and the culture. I am suggesting that we should stay Biblical; the interesting thing about the Bride-of-Christ example is that the Bible does describe the Church as female, not male, so maybe you could argue this is more Biblical than the contextual model. I am equally suggesting that we should stay receptor-oriented. I am not saying we ignore the culture or revert back to a supposedly culturally-neutral Christianity because there ain’t no such thing. But beyond simply accepting or rejecting elements of the culture is another stage, a stage of potentially and selectively providing an alternative to the prevailing culture, and I would say this is even more culturally aware: one needs both a thorough understanding of the culture, and an understanding of the culture’s own attitudes to culture itself, in order to be truly counter-cultural.
In other words, counter-contextualization is not just about providing an alternative purely in order to be different. That would merely be being perverse. But where the culture is dissatisfied with itself, there is room for the Church to point to another way in Christ. I don’t know if the West really is dissatisfied with male domination, (I think its women probably are, but the thing about male domination means you don’t really get to hear about that…) but it is only because there is a need for warm interpersonal relationships in an increasingly individualized and insecure Japanese society that I would consider breaking away from the prevailing culture of formality. Counter-contextualization has to have a point, and like contextualization it has to both serve the needs of the community and also point to a deeper truth of the Gospel.
Another example here in Japan would be that of busyness. There is a prevailing culture of busyness, and oh how our churches have contextualized to it. Missionaries too, working in those churches, take on a busy nature—after all, with less than 1% Christian in Japan, there’s a lot of work to do! We put pressure on ourselves and the society puts pressure on us and the churches put pressure on us, and we end up very busy.
So in that respect we are all very well contextualized; but we are not salty. We are not of the world, but we are like the world, and through our contextualization we have failed to portray the Jesus who promised rest to his disciples—and not just rest, but a radically different way to live.
The message of Jesus and his disciples was so contrary to the prevailing culture that they got killed for it. It was a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles; I think our contextualized gospels are in danger of being too easy and too wise. But at the same time, the countercultural nature of the Early Church’s community and proclamation was intensely attractive to those seeking another way. If we fail to be appealing to our mission field, it may not be because we are too distinct and different; it may be because we are not distinct and different enough—or at least, not in the right ways.
Update: Paul points out that I am no means the first to have had this idea, (Of course!) and that your man Stephen Bevans calls it Counter Cultural Contextualization. Which is also a better name than mine.