For generations, the stereotypical missionary method has been to train non-Western Christians to “think Western” in order to read, interpret, and apply scripture. This technique has been criticized, however, and there is a growing consensus that the most effective communication of the gospel message is one that is interpreted within the particular context of the local church. If this is the most beneficial practice, then the question must be asked, why should a Western church need to be concerned with culturally different forms of interpretation?
This article will examine briefly the value that these perspectives can have for a local church in a Western cultural context.
1. Acknowledges other interpretations and allows a freedom for diversity of thought and affirms that faith in scripture, rather than interpretation, is what unites global Christians
To utilize non-Western perspectives is to disarm the assumption that there is only one possible interpretation of scripture. By recognizing that different interpretations were drawn by committed Christians, cultural attitudes of hegemony and paternalism can begin to decrease. To validate the insight into scripture is to affirm the self-determination of the church within other regions. This appreciation can be viewed as a redemptive act, as the new voices often speak from beneath and directly criticize those Western values which have been unknowingly sanctioned and sanctified by the Western church. By identifying with their message, the Western church acknowledges that their attitudes have contributed to certain oppressive situations and that they now wish to make amends. (Brown 1984:16) “In [this] world, those at the margins, those without power, suffer most, particularly indigenous peoples. It is they who lose their own ways of understanding God and the world, who lose their own of production and sustenance. In [this] world, the local, the vulnerable, the particular are always sacrificed to the interests and power of the global.” (Douglas 2002:202)
To identify with the Biblical narrative, however, is to identify with a cosmic being which is greater than any one particular cultural heritage. God surpasses the cultural deities that are baptized into his name and the call to Christ’s discipleship surpasses all cultural values and assumptions. To belong to Christ’s church is to belong to a greater culture which, while taking seriously the particular context and worldview one possesses, conveys a distinct truth and expectation to be faithful to the revelation of God. This membership in the larger community of faith is what allows Christians from every culture to identify with the global church. Despite barriers of geography, language, or worldview, a common commitment to the supremacy of God and the work of Christ unites diverse tribes into one family.
2. Takes seriously the changing landscape of the west, pluralism and globalization and can serve as an example of contextualization to their particular “mission field”
To speak of a church that is thoroughly Western is becoming increasingly difficult in North America as the cultural landscape is increasingly diversifying with distinct cultural groups. There is no longer a single culture which is equally accessible to all people but instead had developed a multi-cultural milieu, fragmentation into sub-cultural identification, and the macro-shift into post-modern philosophical foundations. In this Western context, the culture is experiencing a life that is “post-Christendom” and needs to be re-introduced to the message of the gospel.
Still, in many western churches, any non-Western biblical interpretation is presented in connection with a description of international missionary efforts. This interpretation demonstrates how the biblical record is translated and adapted in order to impact a local people. To determine this interpretation, the translator must assess the distinctive elements of the culture and find bridges of meaning in order to connect. Those in the western church doing “domestic evangelism” can use as a template the methods employed by non-Western churches in proclaiming the gospel along cultural commonalities. Examples of these would include the spiritual awareness and cosmic orderliness of the Korean culture, which has provided fertile soil for the message of the supremacy of God and the restoration of creation through Christ to take root. (Jenkins 2007:143)
3. Helps to identify those parts of culture that have been co-opted into the life of the church and refresh tired readings of scripture with new life
By being introduced and analyzing the interpretive processes of a different culture, a western church can offer critiques of the methods and identify strengths of weaknesses of the final interpretive product. After examining this, the western church can open itself up to those interpretive processes at work within their own culture. In the spirit of Matthew 7, a church may be compelled to remove the plank of syncretism of the supposed “American dream” from its hermeneutic after examining the influence that folk religion and voodoo have had on the Christian practice in the Caribbean region. In a more positive direction, in identifying those aspects of the Christian life that are culturally determined, a local community may also be freed to determine which aspects of the church are culturally determined and which have lasting theological significance. As Tennent categorizes this process, an attention to cultural distinctions in theology both over the history of the church and in the present context allow for the distinction between the “universal” and the “particular” in the Christian gospel. (2007:7)
The most obvious benefit of this interpretive appreciation is that it brings Western Christians back to the scriptures in a search to understand its meaning anew. The longer that one stays within a particular tradition, the higher the likelihood that they will become accustomed to a familiar reading, interpretation, and application of scripture. By listening to different voices, God’s spirit may speak to the church in different ways. This can be especially poignant in hearing voices from cultures that are more familiar with the culture of the Biblical narrative than Western culture. Biblical authors were in no manner familiar with the constructs or perspectives of modern Western culture and so to more adequately understand their writing, we must understand the cultural lenses which they utilized. (Tate 2008:39-40)
As Jacob Moewen writes of this window to Biblical culture through other current cultures, “we can try to understand the variation in their perception of God and of their relationship to God” (2000: 7). Their experience can alter not only how a community interprets a text, but also how they allow that message to impact their daily life. Scriptures pertaining to kinship, lineage, agrarian economy, and atonement may be better understood by listening to the voice of one whose culture is familiar with the practice and power of such concepts. Appreciation of non-Western biblical interpretation can also restore a spiritual dimension of life that is markedly devoid in Western culture. This affirmation of the presence of God in all of creation stands in stark contrast to the increasing secularism of Western life.
The incorporation of global voices is one that enriches the life of the church because it allows those different voices to create a harmony. The mentality of “to each his own” is valid as a starting point and should serve as correction to those who would demand entirely foreign constructs for communicating the gospel. As fresh expressions of God’s truth come to the table, however, they should be enjoyed by all who partake of the kingdom banquet. In time, it should not only be the Western church that enjoys the diverse landscape of interpretation, but every non-Western church share an awareness of how God is speaking to their foreign brothers and sisters as well.
Michael Shepherd is a student of the School of Intercultural Studies of Fuller Theological Seminary and editor of GlobalTheology.org. He lives in Fullerton, CA and works as a Program Manager for an interfaith housing program for homeless/displaced adults. Find him on Twitter: @mchlshepherd
Brown, Robert McAfee. 1984. Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes. Philadelphia, Penn.: Westminster Press.
Douglas, Ian. 2002. Globalization and the Local Church. In The Local Church in a Global Era, edited by Max Stackhouse, Tim Dearborn, and Scott Paeth. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
Jenkins, Philip. 2007. The Next Christendom. New York, NY: Oxford Press.
Loewen, Jacob. 2000. The Bible in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.
Tate, Randolph. 2008. Biblical Interpretation. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishing.
Tennent, Timothy. 2007. Theology in the Context of World Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.