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 awryfrom 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 contexteither the word or the conceptproperly 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 moreand 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 thatchiefly 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 likebut quite often disagree withclearly 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 mostsomeone'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 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:
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.
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?
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.
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.