More about why I've been so adamant in my refusal to embrace and celebrate a word so many people seem enthralled with.
efore the 1970s, the word contextualize was pretty hard to come by. It was, however, listed in unabridged dictionaries as a verb meaning "to study something in its own context." (The Oxford English Dictionary still gives that as the word's primary meaning.)
In the early 1970s, left-leaning missiologists made contextualization into a religious shibboleth. They also turned the dictionary definition of the word inside out. They weren't talking about studying or explaining biblical truth in its own context; instead, what they wanted to do was adapt and stylize religious ideas and symbols to fit into the cultural context of their target audiencenamely oppressed and marginalized people groups.
It wasn't long before hip, young evangelicals discovered and embraced the basic concept, and then franchised it. Instead of targeting impoverished and downtrodden people, however, they turned contextualization into a tool for attracting Yuppies. People-pleasing activities quickly replaced God-exalting worship. Popular entertainment, apparently, was the one "context" the new evangelicals' target clientele were drawn to en masse.
Now post-evangelicals have canonized contextualization as the one essential belief they all agree on. The "context" that seems to interest them most is the postmodern underbelly of western youth culture. (They evidently believe nihilistic post-generation-Xers are the very epitome of an oppressed and marginalized people group, so in effect they have brought the term back to its roots.) They defend contextualization with a zeal most of them don't even have for the authority of Scripture.
A fundamental problem in all those cases is that the starting point of their hermeneutic is not a careful study of the biblical text in its own contextbut a sympathetic self-immersion into various contemporary cultural contexts. The favorite emblems of faddish subcultures are then borrowed and blended with spiritual imagery in order to make selected elements of the Christian message seem as comfortable and familiar as possible. Re-contextualization or even de-contextualization would be more fitting terms.
I realize there are some sensible and sane evangelicals who are quite fond of the word contextualizationand they generally try to define it in innocuous terms that defy the word's actual derivation and history. That strikes me as an utterly wrong-headed way of thinkingespecially for those who profess to be concerned about context and communication. And yes, I know the word is currently in vogue and gaining ground even in conservative circles. I don't mind being countercultural and uncool, so that plea carries no weight whatsoever with me.
Let me be clear: My objection to "contextualization" in evangelical and post-evangelical parlance is not because I think context is unimportant. On the contrary, context is vitally importantand when we're dealing with revealed truth from God, biblical context is vastly more important than the context of any contemporary subculture.
In that context, consider this comment from a semi-prominent post-evangelical blogger:
- First, the fellow utterly misses my whole point. My objection to the popular notion of contextualization has nothing whatsoever to do with any phobia about contexteither the word or the conceptproperly considered. I'm simply pointing out that of all the contextual issues we must consider as ministers of the gospel, biblical context must always be first in order and is always of supreme importance.
But biblical context is not what the word contextualization refers to. I frankly wouldn't care if the very finest aspects of culture dominated the concerns of contextualizers. I'd still reject the concept. What I object to is the utterly fallacious idea that something other than the biblical context should be the starting point for our understanding or application of spiritual truth.
- Second, when considering our own contemporary cultural context, we need to make honest and biblically-informed assessments about what's compatible (or not) with timeless biblical principlesrather than uncritically embracing the ephemeral icons of popular culture.
- Third, in questions about spiritual truth, biblical context is infinitely more relevant than any cultural context is. That's because meaning and truth are properly determined by the Author, not by the ambassador, and certainly not by the audience.
- Finally, with regard to the question of what missiologists and missional pastors mean by contextualization," one of the problems with the term, as I pointed out the other day, is that no two people ever seem to mean quite the same thing when they use it.
Others take "contextualization" a whole different direction, saying that if you really want to reach postmodernized cultures and subcultures, you can't preach anything with strong convictions. Certainty is offensive to postmodern sensitivities; firm doctrinal positions are perceived as arrogant; so traditional approaches to Christianity are not only uncool; they are hopelessly ineffectual.
What both sides of the Emergent/emerging divide do agree on (in practice if not in precept) is that the application of spiritual truth should begin with the contemporary cultural context, not the biblical context. That's precisely where I think the idea of missiological contextualization went astray, and it happened at the very start.
Oh, and one more thing: the supreme irony here is that the word contextualization itself is a kind of religious jargonthe very kind of thing most contextualizers say we ought to eschew. Do a Google search for the term and see who is using it. Religious peoplestylish evangelicals, postmodernized pundits from the emerging conversation, missiologists, church-growth experts, CT editors, missionaries who toe the School of World Mission line, and evangelical jargonauts of all types. Collectively, they seem to use the word at least 75 times more than anyone else. So it is exactly the kind of Christianese the champions of contextualization say we should stay away from. Odd, isn't it?