03 April 2008

Coffee Klatsch

by Phil Johnson



ostmodernists aren't sure about much, but they work harder than Mormon apologists to maintain the few cardinal dogmas of their system. Of course, the first article of faith in the postmodernists' short canon is their belief that an impregnable fortress of ambiguity surrounds the very slippery notion of "truth." They can't seem to muster any settled conviction even when God Himself has spoken. But here's one thing they are dead certain about: Meaning is always elusive.

Meaning is at its most evanescent whenever someone disagrees with them. The more you labor to make your meaning plain, the harder the postmodern mind will labor to find a way to deconstruct your clarifications. And if you are stubborn enough to continue explaining yourself in the face of their determination to misread what you are saying, a devoted pomo will simply pretend not to be able to hear. If you persist anyway, prepare to be labeled either stupid or uncharitable.

The comment thread at Andrew Jones's blog today furnishes several fine illustrations of the kind of thing I mean.

Recapping the Conversation So Far . . .

First, let's review the issues ostensibly under discussion. I'll mostly cite verbatim from things I've recently posted here. (The previously posted material appears in bold blue typeface):

I've been raising some significant concerns about the way the term contextualization is being used these days to justify taking liberties with the Christian message. I've cited numerous real-life examples of contextualization gone awry—from relatively minor issues like "the changing of sheep to sea lions in Bible translations, to the revisionist treatment of Scripture practiced by Eugene Peterson. . . , to the unsanctified slogans and imagery used by the XXX Church, to Mark Driscoll's blasphemous description of Jesus as someone who 'needs Paxil,' to the argument set forth in [this] document."

I've also repeatedly said this: "I recognize, of course, that there's a valid necessity for the translation and illustration of truth across cultural boundaries. The problem with the average Fuller-trained missiologist's notion of contextualization, however, is that more often than not, this entails not merely translation and illustration of the truth but a wholesale deconstruction/reconstruction process where the point is lost in translation."

Moreover: "My objection to the popular notion of contextualization has nothing whatsoever to do with any phobia about context—either the word or the concept—properly considered. . . . 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."

And: "if contextualization entailed nothing more than translation and illustration, the word would be superfluous. It practically always means something more—and that 'something more' is what I object to, not the translation and illustration of biblical truths."

I summed up my position once more in an extended comment in reply to a couple of commenters who had utterly misconstrued what I was saying. I wrote:
Every sensible evangelist or missionary translates and illustrates the gospel using the native language and familiar imagery of whatever culture he is trying to reach. Nothing wrong with that. Its necessary.

But the term contextualization carries with it a lot of additional baggage beyond that—chiefly the idea of adapting the truth-content of the message with the aim of making it more acceptable or comfortable to the target society. Everything is wrong with that. It's the worst kind of perfidy for someone who is supposed to be an ambassador.

To illustrate: there's a huge difference between (on the one hand) illustrating what sheep are like by comparing their behavior to the mannerisms of sea lions, and (on the other hand) replacing the word lamb with walrus when you are teaching someone from the Bible. I applaud the former approach; execrate the latter.

The problem is that those who invented contextualization defined the word in a way that expressly affirms the latter methodology. Evangelicals who like the word generally try to pretend it involves only the former methodology. The two ideas must not be confused, and yet they are both often labeled contextualization nowadays.

I'm convinced there are people who deliberately foster confusion between those two ideas. They gloss over the important distinction between simple translation/illustration and full-bore contextualization, because no one really has a problem with good communication, and if we can make contextualization sound like nothing more than a simple, creative method for reaching various subcultures, certain preachers who like to use filthy language and others who want to deny essential Christian doctrines can both justify what they are doing by calling it contextualization.

Here's a simple matter of fact: if missional contextualization means what those who coined the term say it means, then it isn't simply the translation and illustration of biblical ideas.

So pointing out that this or that person has translated or illustrated some biblical truth with a particular culture's language is no proof that "everyone contextualizes."

Furthermore, I think it's sheer folly for evangelicals to try to embrace and whitewash a concept that has wreaked so much havoc. And to dismiss my point (especially after I've been so careful with definitions), with the "Everyone contextualizes (How naive can Phil Johnson be?)" argument hardly suggests that good communication is really the goal of those who find themselves on that side of the conversation.

I could go on quoting, of course, but the point here is that these are things I have said repeatedly.

Andrew Weighs In

So anyway, Andrew Jones, whom I like—but quite often disagree with—clearly isn't happy with my suggestion that post-evangelicals tend to employ high-sounding jargon like missional, incarnational, and contextual to justify outreach strategies that make unwarranted accommodations to worldly culture, alter the content of the Christian message, tone down the hard parts of the Bible, or foster man-centered religion. Andrew seems even less happy with my assertion that the Apostle Paul's ministry in Athens was fundamentally counter-cultural, and what Paul did in that chapter had nothing whatsoever to do with the kind of cultural accommodation the champions of missional-incarnational contextualization like to suggest the church must now employ lest the gates of hell suddenly prevail against her.

Andrew wrote a post last night in which he argues that I've misunderstood Acts 17. The post is titled "Context. Does it matter?" (My answer, once more: Of course it does. Whoever suggested otherwise? Remember, the question I have raised is about which context matters most—someone's cultural context, or the biblical context.) In that post:
  • Andrew indulges in some historical revisionism. (He says, "When some missionaries went to North America with complete disdain for contextualization, they took away their native dances and forced the converts to learn English so that they could worship God properly, in the correct language, and without their nuances of culture").
  • He insists that in Lystra, rather than being confrontive or countercultural, Paul was "being contextually relevant to the pagan animistic Lystrians" (which raises a fair question about why they stoned him and left him for dead).
  • He ignores the obvious connotation of Luke's observation in Acts 17:16 that Paul's "spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols," insisting that Paul simply gleaned from the myths of ancient Greece "redemptive analogies," and that the apostle embraced and adapted those myths. Our Tall Skinny friend furthermore claims "Christ is often pre-figured" in the imagery of those myths.
Andrew's whole post barely interacted with any actual point I have made in my five-or-so posts on this subject. He simply passed over all the emphatic clarifications I have quoted above. In fact, at the key points he so completely misrepresented my position that I wondered if he had read my posts at all. "Could it be that Paul knew nothing about Epimenides and the plague of Athens and just FLUKED it by either sheer luck or a prophetic burst of Spirit guided wisdom?" he asks with feigned astonishment—as if I were not merely opposed to blending Christianity with other cultures' worldviews; as if I were actually promoting deliberate head-in-the-sand ignorance about those worldviews.

Andrew's Commenters Weigh In

Still, what fascinated me more than Andrew's post was the freewheeling discussion he hosted in the comment-thread that followed. Here are a few typical samples, with brief replies from me:

Is there any such thing as a non-contextualized gospel anymore?

It depends on whether you define contextualization carefully and specifically, as I have tried to do, or whether you prefer a broad, hazy catch-all definition. See above for my reply to the simplistic assertion that "everyone contextualizes." Ignoring what I have said and merely repeating the same shopworn assertion once more is no answer to my point. Identify some aspect of contextualization that you think is legitimate other than translation and illustration. Then show biblically how and why you think this as-yet-unnamed aspect of "contextualization" is necessary. When you've done that, you'll have made an actual point against something I have said.

I agree. The sad thing is that both John [MacArthur] and Phil probably hunted Easter eggs a few weeks ago and thought that it was a purely "Christian" thing to do. It seems hypocritical to say that only their culture is Christian and somehow by incorporating other cultural practices into the worship of Jesus it is being diluted rather than strengthened

Was this supposed to be a serious comment? Do some of the TSK's readers actually think the point under discussion has anything remotely to do with easter-egg hunts? (I haven't participated in one since the '60s, BTW.) Does someone truly imagine my argument boils down to a jingoistic belief that one worldly culture is superior to another? Does anyone who has actually read anything I wrote seriously imagine I'm suggesting that the pleasure-mad culture in which I usually live and minister is any more "Christian" than cultures on the opposite side of planet earth (where I have also lived and ministered at various times)? How, precisely, is this fellow's comment germane to anything I have ever said?

I was first introduced to the concept of contextualization in grad school as I studied mission - at a very conservative evangelical school. . . . At the time I questioned why it was perfectly okay to contextualize to indigenous peoples, but not to our own culture. The somewhat racist response was that we are either above culture or have achieved the best culture, so contextualization isn't necessary for us. Are such assumptions still at play?

OK, again: Is this supposed to be taken seriously? Would this woman care to document her assertion that someone "at a very conservative evangelical school" told students that "we . . . have achieved the best culture"? In fact, can anyone cite any published statement even remotely resembling that claim from a single credible "conservative evangelical" source? That sounds for all the world like a bad caricature dreamed up out of thin air to justify this person's facile dismissal of the point under discussion.

As a matter of fact, in my experience, the more conservative an evangelical school is, the more uncomfortable they are likely to be with whatever culture they find themselves in.

Of course context matters. For starters, it is essential to speak the same language. Basic, but true. Try sharing the English version of The Four Spiritual Laws (or King James Version or whatever) to people who do not understand English!

But, see: I already said that. I started by acknowledging that. Does someone seriously imagine a comment like that somehow advances the discussion?

For all the talk about wanting to engage and interact with differing views, there really hasn't been any effort to do that. So far not one single commenter in Andrew's comment-thread has shown any willingness whatsoever to hear and reply to anything I actually said.

In fact, a couple of later commenters even suggested that because we use graphics to illustrate our posts, it's hypocritical for me to complain about contextualization.

. . . and so goes the Conversation. I hope the coffee isn't decaf. I think we're going to be here awhile.

Phil's signature

206 comments:

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Rick Frueh said...

"What is accomplished when someone blogs about "all those postmodern folks teaching heresy" when there aren't specific charges being given? What is accomplished by condemning groups of people and calling individuals one of them when no one even knows what it is specifically that is being charged?"

Two things, Bryan.

1. Many blogs including this one are painfull specific drawing direct quotes from books, sermons, and interviews.

2. When you say "What is accomplished" you display a lack of comprehension about the place of blogs in the electronosphere. Any "accomplishment" via a blog would fall under the "WOW" category and should be archived for proof.

As a blogger I harbor no inflated views about being any pervasive accomplishments especially when it seems you are indicating that people who hold the opposite view of your blog will even listen, much less change.

When MacLaren comes to this blog and comments "I see your point, Phil" I will buy you and your family dinner. That would be some accomplishment. Until then, comment and enjoy!

Strong Tower said...

"And yet Paul only says remove one guy who was living with his mother-in-law! Why? We can only assume that was the one sin that was public and was a stumbling block to the unsaved." Rick-

Don't read back into church disciplinary actions this isolated incident; we have further teaching: "I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. ...wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme..." No sexuality even in lesser occasion, merely contentions and false teaching.

Matthew 18's immediate context is individual brothers, though it has wider application in the governance (discipleship) of the church, and nothing is said to the type or severity of the issue at hand.

Some sins are obvious, others not so, but they are still sin. There is wisdom in covering some, and wisdom in exposing some to the congregation. Discipline, I don't believe is tit-for-tat, must be handled on a individual basis and as was stated, with the end being the reconcilliation of the brethren. God desires that none should parish but that all would come to repentance: "That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world." (Matthew 18:18 places this judgement in the hands of the leadership as necessary duties for the health of the body, individually and therefore collectively) "but (God) is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance."

And so Paul says that he is jealous with a Godly jealousy and not to neglect the severity of the jealousy (thanks Phil, exellent sermon): This is the law in cases of jealousy, when a wife, though under her husband's authority, goes astray and defiles herself, or when the spirit of jealousy comes over a man and he is jealous of his wife. Then he shall set the woman before the Lord, and the priest shall carry out for her all this law. The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity, cf Ephesians 5; 2Co 11:2; Pr 6:34. The church's job, is to stand in the place of the Husband, as husbandmen, preparing the bride, chastening, whitening, purifying her until the Day.

Negative discipline is very critical for the purity of the bride. It is both a charge and a cherished occupation to sit in the place of the husbandman. One that exacts high cost, little praise, and gains few friends. But, faithful nonetheless are the wounds of a friend, and much sweeter than the kisses of an enemy.

Herein lies the rub. If we do not punish we become partakers, derserving even the greater punishment. And we note from the history of Israel that for diverse causes, she was sent away from her betrothed. It is often necessary, and not always for the same cause. Peter is an example, when in pursuit of his Lord, denies him and must go into hidding. For the faithful, the Lord desires and brings about the good. Others, as in the case of Judas, it becomes obvious by their own hands that they were never part of the body of Christ in the first place.

DJP said...

We have multi-page meta's now?

Hunh.

Mike Riccardi said...

but seriously I just ask the Holy Spirit to help me understand. Exegete really isn't a word I use.

Surgeon: Hey there! All ready for the surgery today?
Nurse: Uhh.. yeah? You seem excited.
Surgeon: Well I have to confess that I am. It's my first open-heart surgery! It's actually my first surgery, period! I guess I'm a little nervous, too.
Nurse: The first one! Wow! That's great. But don't be nervous you'll be fine.
Surgeon: Yeah... I know you're right.
Nurse: Of course. I mean you went through all of that schooling. Med School, Residency, not to mention your undergrad in the Biological Sciences.
Surgeon: What?
Nurse: You know... you're training. Med school.
Surgeon (chuckles): Oh... heheh. No. Don't have any of that.
Nurse: What????!!!!
Surgeon: That's right. When I thought about all of that studying, and practice, and poring over millions of pages of stuff that's too difficult for me to understand anyway... I just couldn't deal with it.
Nurse: But... you're about to cut someone open to try to fix their heart! How are you going to know what to do?!
Surgeon: Don't worry. I feel good about it. I've hung out with a bunch of surgeons.

As Surgeon goes over to make preparations for his first surgery, Nurse grabs a syringe filled with a fast-acting sedative, and gives it to Surgeon. Nurse proceeds to call the police.

(End of Scene)

Daryl said...

What's that verse again "Tune in to the inner voice of the Spirit to show yourself approved..."

That was great Mike...shades of "what does this verse mean to you???" Like it mattered.

Kelly said...

"Meaning is at its most evanescent whenever someone disagrees with them."

This quotation is simply awesome. Thanks for the chuckle this evening.

To quote Homer Simpson, "It's funny because it's true."

CKS

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