Sunday, December 02, 2007
Contextualization or Isolation: Then and Now
This morning in church for the first Sunday of Advent we talked about how the language of the Nativity stories in the gospels deliberately mirrored the language used to describe the advent of Caesar Augustus. Caesar, if you didn't know, was also said to have been born of a virgin, fully human and fully divine, Son of God, Messiah (i.e. "king") and Lord, Savior of the World, and Prince of Peace. We talked about how the early Christians deliberately took these imperial narratives and reinterpreted them, turned them on their heads, as a challenge to the values, imaginations and oppressive systems of the Empire. Through the gospels, the early Christians were declaring a new, different kind of kingdom - a kingdom of true peace, justice, and equality brought about by a humble, self-sacrificial king rather than a violent and oppressive one. We then compared it to our current situation, the "imperial" systems we live under today, how they capture our imaginations and values, and how we can likewise use the message of the gospel to challenge and replace these idols in our lives with the way of Christ.

In the course of our conversation the question came up of whether the best strategy for resisting the empire was in withdrawal or engagement. If the empire is so hopelessly corrupt and oppressive, should we perhaps simply disengage from it as much as we possibly can and not let ourselves (or our children) be exposed to its influence? In our world that may mean avoiding pop culture (television, movies, magazines), withdrawing our kids from the school system, living in deliberate Christian communities where we can shape our own values without influence from the outside world, etc.

This of course has been the response of the fundamentalist and conservative evangelical subculture over the past 30 years or so. They have created an alternative culture of "Christian" music, movies, books, clothing, etc. - so as to protect their children from the corrupting influence of the "world" (by which, in their case, they generally mean permissive sexual ethics, substance abuse, and evolutionary science). Interestingly however, this tendency towards isolation also pops up on the more liberal end of the spectrum, especially among anabaptists and increasingly among emerging church type folks, though for different reasons. In these communities the move towards disengagement from "the world" is to avoid the corrupting influences of consumer capitalism and political involvement. Given the context and concerns of our particular faith community right now, we could potentially have tendencies towards this latter type of withdrawal from the world.

However, it strikes me that this is not what the early Christians themselves did regarding their engagement with the world. They did not cut themselves off entirely, they did not isolate themselves from and ignore the world, for if they did, then how could they have even known the imperial symbols to appropriate and critique them as they did in the first place ? (Some in our church suggested that perhaps the biblical writers were even humorously spoofing and satirizing the imperial imagery - imagine reading the New Testament as the ancient Christian version of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report!) If they used the language and imagery of the Empire in their critique, then that means they were weren't cut off from that culture entirely. They hadn't fled to the desert like the Essenes (or the Midwestern countryside like the Amish) to escape this evil world. They saw the inscriptions to Augustus (since the gospels and Paul constantly borrow their language and images), they read the Greek poets (Paul quotes several), they were familiar with the Imperial Biographies (since the gospel of Mark is explicitly constructed according to the same pattern). They engaged with the popular culture of their day and contextualized their message to its modes of thinking.

That is a key word, "contextualization", and one that has had important implications for Christianity throughout the centuries. Contextualization is the alternative to both isolation and syncretism. If isolation cuts people off from culture altogether, syncretism engages with culture without providing enough of a contrast. Contextualization, on the other hand, engages with culture in a way that both appropriates the good that can already be found there (such as when Paul affirms the piety of the Athenians and quotes one of their poets favorably in Acts 17), and also offers a contrasting vision to the destructive and unjust aspects of that culture as well. But it does so in the language and imagery of the culture itself. It appropriates that language and imagery and reinterprets it - fills it with new meaning. (In this regard it is a very "postmodern" methodology - if it makes any sense to describe ancient biblical writers as "postmodern".)

This, I take it, is a good model for how we should likewise engage our contemporary 21st century culture as well. Rather than cutting ourselves off from the world, we should listen to it receptively yet critically, with discernment, doing as Paul suggests and "testing everything, keeping the good, rejecting what is harmful" (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). Watch movies, read magazines, get to know your neighbors, and then communicate the good news of God's kingdom to them in a way that makes sense to their ways of thinking about and viewing the world. In emerging circles this is often called being "relevant", but I hope it is clear that this is so much more than just being "hip" or "cool". It means doing the same kinds of things the biblical authors did in their own day, creatively interpreting the message of Christ for a new set of hearers.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 3:58 PM | Permalink |


At 12/03/2007 09:00:00 AM, Blogger Mike Stavlund

Hey, that's so weird... we looked at the same Roman and Christian texts yesterday!

Thanks for posting your thoughts here. Great stuff.