Friday, November 28, 2003

De-Westernizing the Gospel


As a follow-up to my last posting, I want to add that the Presbyterian Outlook has put Harold Kurtz' article on De-Westernizing the Gospel on its Web site. Harold continues to help us understand the stunning ability of the Gospel to incarnate itself within each culture of the world. It's excellent reading.

-- Dave Hackett

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

No Culture Untouched by the Gospel; No Culture Unfit for the Gospel


Christians in the US have enjoyed a long spell during which our remarkably homogeneous churches have been lulled into complacent one-cultural witness. Many would say that's because our US culture and the culture of Christianity neatly overlap.

No longer, if ever.

We live in an increasingly diverse US, a change made all the more obvious by immigrants with cultures and religions strikingly varying from the "US Standard Culture." We are becoming (thankfully) more racially diverse and even traditional racial dividers are breaking down through multi-racial marriages. Our elementary, middle and senior high schools have active Buddhist, Muslim, and other religious faith holders, alongside those content with total isolation from any faith practice.

The post-Christian influence is pandemic. If we really understood how marginalized Christianity is, we might be shocked. In a recent Presbyterian Outlook interview I described an example from the heart of secular America. A Christian friend of mine was in a jewelry store, and overheard the clerk showing a customer some crosses. "There are two different kinds," the clerk explained. "One thatís plain, and one that has a little guy on it." Christ has disappeared in the secular mindset and in his place is a non-iconic figurine.

I say we rise to the challenge, and figure out how to speak to this new set of diverse cultures around us. We aren't the first generation to face the challenge of speaking to a non-believing world around us. And Christians in young churches around the world these days face this fact daily.

Fortunately, we have an extensive and wonderfully developed body of knowledge at our disposal to equip
us for encountering cultures different from our own. It's called missiology. And it's what missionaries learn to use.

Learning to think as missionaries do will equip us all to be prepared to de-westernize the gospel when it needs to leap over these barriers. Not all those we want to touch with love and the good news of Jesus Christ will feel welcome in our local church - but that doesn't mean that Christ isn't for them. Christ wants to get inside every culture.

The concept that faith is tied to a particular culture is unbiblical to the core. We are Christians because the gospel (through bold witnesses) dared to leap beyond the middle- and near-Eastern forms of early Christendom. I's the same lesson the Apostle Peter learned (Acts 15) - that new believers did not have to act like (conform to the culture of) Jews in order to become followers of Christ. All cultural elements that are not contrary to the following after Christ and the life of discipleship are quite neutral. No culture is unfit for the gospel; all cultures are fit vessels for the good news to florish.

There's a flip side to this: All cultures are also under the judgment of the gospel. All cultures (including our own, of course) have elemental practices and beliefs that need redemption. Both natives and sojourners among all cultures are under biblical imperative to call cultures to step beyond those destructive patterns even as they embrace the non-destructive cultural elements.

My colleague Harold Kurtz offers excellent thoughts on these twin propositions - that all cultures are fit vessels and that all cultures need redemption - in a new opinion article on De-Westernizing the Gospel in the Presbyterian Outlook's Nov 24 issue, which has not yet been posted online. Harold has written a companion booklet called "The Word of God in the Mother Tongue; The Life of Faith in the Mother Culture . With insight, Harold advances the radical belief that the Christian faith is to be born completely into the culture it enters, a "De-Westernized Gospel" for every people.

-- Dave Hackett

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

What Makes Up Culture?


The Philadelphia Messianic Jewish congregation situation has prompted many discussions in our church, some of which seem to me to center around what we define as a 'culture.'

The Presbyterian Outlook, for example, asks in a recent article, "To what extent, for example, can Jews or Muslims be considered an 'ethnic group' or a culture, rather than people of another religion?"

Well, then, let's look a bit at what defines 'culture.'

Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, by David Hackett Fischer, distinguishes various cultures from one another by how they differ in their distinctive folkways.

The book's thesis is that in any given culture, 'folkways' always include the following things:

  • Speech ways: conventional patterns of written and spoken language - pronounciation, vocabulary, syntax and grammar.

  • Building ways: prevailing forms of vernacular architecture and high architecture, which tend to be related to one another.

  • Family ways: the structure and function of the household and family, both in ideal and actuality.

  • Marriage ways: ideas of the marriage-bond, and cultural processes of courtship, marriage and divorce.

  • Gender ways: customs that regulate social relations between men and women.

  • Sex ways: conventional sexual attitudes and acts, and the treatment of sexual deviance.

  • Child-rearing ways: ideas of child nature and customs of child nurture.

  • Naming ways: onomastic customs including favored forenames and the descent of names within the family.

  • Age ways: attitudes toward age, expreiences of aging, an age relationships.

  • Death ways: attitudes toward death, mortality rituals, mortuary customs and mourning practices.

  • Religious ways: patterns of religious worship, theology, ecclesiology and church architecture.

  • Magic ways: normative beliefs and practices concerning the supernatural.

  • Learning ways: attitudes toward literacy and learning, and conventional patterns of education.

  • Food ways: patterns of diet, nutrition, cooking, eating, feasting and fasting.

  • Dress ways: customs of dress, demeanor, and personal adornment.

  • Sport ways: attitudes toward recreation and leisure; folk games and forms of organized sport.

  • Work ways: work ethics and work experiences; attitudes toward work and the nature of work.

  • Time ways: attitudes toward the use of time, customary methods of time keeping, and the conventional rhythms of life.

  • Wealth ways: attitudes toward wealth and patterns of its distribution.

  • Rank ways: the rules by which rank is assigned, the roles which rank entails, and relations between different ranks.

  • Social ways: conventional patterns of migration, settlement, association and affiliation.

  • Order ways: ideas of order, ordering institutions, forms of disorder, and treatment of the disorderly.

  • Power ways: attitudes toward authority and power; patterns of political participation.

  • Freedom ways: prevailing ideas of liberty and restraint, and libertarian customs and institutions.


Says the book, "Every major culture in the modern world has its own distinctive customs in these many areas..."

A missionary mindset is not one that seeks to do away with other cultures but one that does the hard work -- the art, really -- of coming to grips with and relating to a distinct other culture. Unless we understand a culture and the various "folkways" values that are upheld in that culture, we won't be able to get to square one in presenting and passing along the gospel to them.

-- Dave Hackett