How do we incorporate the cultural expectations of our particular locations in our own theological development? What elements inform our community’s imagination and supply meaning to its spiritual vocabulary? How can we communicate effectively who Christ is and the significance of the gospel?
In 1927, Po Ch’en Kuang viewed the Chinese religious classics Analects, Mencius, and the Book of Songs and Rites as comparable to the prophets, Psalms, and Deuteronomy of the Hebrew Scriptures that were included in the canon by non-Hebrew Christian groups. As Kwok Pui Lan summarized his argument, “since the Bible contains the important classics of the Jewish people which preceded Jesus, he could see no reason why the Chinese would not include their own” (“Discovering the Bible in the Non-Biblical World.” Voices from the Margins. R.S. Sugirtharajah, ed. 1991, 302).
Some Christian communities in India exemplify this approach through the incorporation of Vedic Hindu Scriptures. The Vedas and Hindu traditions define the lexicon of the spirituality and so to access this subsystem of the culture requires fluency in the associated terms and grammar. Thangaraj describes the possibility of viewing the Hindu scriptures as a type of “Old Testament for Indian Christians” and the need to “…read the Hindu Scriptures in the light of Christ, just as the early Jewish disciples of Jesus had done with the Hebrew Scriptures” (“The Bible as Veda: Biblical Hermeneutics in Tamil Christianity.” Vernacular Hermeneutics. R.S. Sugirtharajah, ed. 1999, 136). This perspective takes seriously the extent to which the Hinduism and the Vedic scriptures have shaped the culture and religious expectation in India. One must mine the cultural influence of the Hindu Scripture to present an image of Christ that is recognizable and incorporated into the lives of the community.
Within these convergent communities, local theologians utilize the existing thought forms and archetypes to mold their unique Christologies. As a North American example, Gabe Lyons, in his book The Next Christians (2010), labels some communities of North American Christians restorers, in clear differentiation from a former buzzword, relevant. A defining characteristic of these communities is a countercultural relationship with the majority culture. The term “countercultural” is not void of meaning to this community, however, as they possess preconceived images that define it. To view Christ as countercultural places him in a category of other iconoclasts and may conjure images of Che Guevara, Malcolm X, or Bob Dylan. Elements of the lives of each of these men find greater definition when applied to Christ, such as commitment to societal change, redefining oneself in relation to one’s commitment to faith, or using poetic language to convey a message of hope and love. A more contemporary example of the countercultural iconoclast is the street artist Banksy, an anonymous activist known to beautify public places in an attempt to bring attention to injustices or awaken people to a life of deeper significance. The theologizing of the restorers follows the pre-existing pattern to determine the type of countercultural figure Jesus is and the manner in which the community can align their lives after his in discipleship. For this community to comprehend Christ, they begin with the images with which they are familiar and then seek the direction of scripture to add greater definition.
What elements exist within your community that form its “lexicon of spirituality”? How can these be used and re-interpreted to convey the gospel?
This essay was excerpted from “Form, Re-Form: Religious and Cultural Identity in the Formation of Christian Theology” , by Michael Shepherd. The full material can be found here and is open for dialogue and review.