12 October 2013

Out of Context, part 1

   This is going to take a few posts to complete, but to begin the discussion on Contextualization, let me lift a section from an email conversation I was involved in a few months back.  The topic was an New York Times OpEd by Peter Buffett.  In trying to formulate a response to describe the intersection between Buffett's piece and missions/our ministry, I offered the following:

   I think the way Buffett has described the initial problem-solving approach at the beginning of the article is an accurate description of how mission has been done – “successfully” from those whose view is only from the sending-nation perspective – since the beginning of the modern missionary movement.  Missionary-sending organizations, whether participating in colonialism or not have benefited from it.  To say otherwise would be dishonest . . . and even if we insist in the purity of our own motives, then we still must account for how we communicate and solicit funds for what we are doing! Colonialism emerges from the mistaken arrogance that a culture – usually our own – represents the highest and best.  The desire is almost understandable, then, to want other peoples to experience the most advanced the world has to offer. However, the power relationships inherent in the paternalistic (at best) or dictatorial situations where the well-educated, well-meaning, outrageously well-funded missionary enters a new culture do not honor how God has already gifted the new culture with all the necessary gifts (assets, abilities, knowledge) necessary in order for that culture to be transformed.  The colonialism of the past planted the seeds of its own destruction.  Globalism has replaced colonialism to describe the unifying force of a global culture.
   With the defeat of former global powers post World War 1 and 2, independence movements among former colonies in the global south exposed deep cultural rifts which had been masked by colonialism.  It was then, with the emergence of globalism, that we in the missionary business sought to respond to the emergence of multiple cultural realities through what became known as contextualization (“inculturation” by Catholic missiologists).  We in the business didn't even realize the need for this until the 1970s (non-Catholics actually got here in 1971 and the Catholic Church in 1974).  The goal became to evangelize or theologize in the language and culture of particular contexts – among different countries, language groups, socioeconomic groups – because old methods were no longer effective.   With a commitment of seeing Christ incarnated into every cultural context, missions began to focus on contextualization, the “’mixing point; of gospel and culture” (Scott Moreau, Contextualization in World Missions, 19).  
   Using this as the starting point for a description of contextualization, let me emphasize that missionally this concept does not, at first, begin with the way we read the Scriptures.  I came across one discussion of missional contextualization where the author described a process of applying the right verse of Scripture to a specific situation on the mission field.  No.  Not really.  No need to burden the task of exegesis any more than it already is.  A better frame of reference for understanding contextualization is learned from cross-cultural mission's sometimes collaborators and co-beneficiaries, the anthropologists.

   Emic is a term used to describe the way a person understands their own culture.  In short, it is how local people think, their perspective on the world.

   Etic is a term used to describe how an outsider to the culture understands the second culture through their own way of thinking.  It is the outsider's attempt to describe the perspective of locals through cultural categories imposed by the outsider.

   Which is the right way to approach missions?  Yes.

   Contextualization recognizes that as outsiders, while we may strive to understand the world through the lens of a different culture, including Scripture and the Gospel, we must also recognize that to be fully emic is an illusive goal.  A commitment to a balanced etic approach in cross-cultural missions is a great first start though.  It demands a lot from the missionary who must commit to learning a different culture - language is just the tip of the iceberg.  To be able to translate categories of meaning from one frame of reference to another takes a commitment beyond a short-term mission trip every couple of years.  It takes, for lack of a better description, a life-time commitment.  We can be aided in this task if, in our commitment to contextualization, we prioritize the emic perspective from the other culture over our own, limited, etic perspective.

   With this shot-gun approach to background information, I'll pause for a little bit.  I need to process this a bit further myself.  But as I start this conversation, I want to emphasize that it is a conversation.  I would be thrilled if you could help me learn more about contextualization by sharing your thoughts on it as well.  You can comment publicly on this blog post or, if you are like me and would prefer to keep things private, you can email me at: shane.mcnary (at) gmail (dot) com

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