26 October 2013

Out of Context, part 2

For missions, the goal of contextualization is to be able to communicate the Gospel in culturally-appropriate ways in order for people to respond.  Cross-cultural missions requires learning to see the world in cultural categories not your own.  Simplified, culture can be described as a frame of reference.  It is defined as "the sum of the distinctive characteristics of a people's way of life" (Ministering Cross-Culturally, Lingenfelter and Mayers, 17).  A more open description would be to interpret culture as "What matters most to people ... how they would like to relate to other people and how they would like others to relate to them" (Cultural Theory, Thompson, Ellis, and Wildavsky, 97).  This "frame of reference" influences how we communicate, relate socially with others, schedule our free time, and yes, how we understand the Gospel (Cross-Cultural Connections, Elmer, 39).

To reveal my inner nerd just a bit, let me remind you of the Star Trek character Geordi La Forge.  Born blind, he was able to "see" through the use of a visor which sent visual stimuli directly to his brain instead of via eyes.  Without the visor, he couldn't see; but with the visor he was able to see with understanding.  The last time I went for glasses, I was told that it would not be long before I needed to make the switch to bifocals.  The optometrist wasn't kidding.  Within six months, I discovered that I was needing to hold things at arm's length to be able to see clear enough to read.  Since I have procrastinated in having my lenses changed, I've made a decision to not see as well as I should.

Contextualization is trading in single-lens glasses for bi- or even trifocal lenses.  We can never completely remove ourselves from our original frame of reference.  With bifocals we are able to adjust our focus just a bit to see things differently.  By learning the local language or by beginning to be sensitive to local customs and social norms, we are adding that bifocal lens to our frame of reference.  However, if you've ever had only one pair of glasses, you know that if you must leave the frames at the optometrist so she can replace the lenses, you will have to walk about blindly for a bit.  Walking about blindly is a hauntingly accurate description of a cross-cultural missionary who is deep in the throes of language and cultural acquisition.  The endless mistakes!  The constant embarrassment!  It is really difficult work.  However, when the dedicated missionary begins to realize that they are able to recognize that what matters to them is changing, that how they relate to others is transformed into something closer to their new context, it is then that they learn they're not walking about blindly any longer but have gained a set of cultural bifocals.

A warning about social norms when talking about contextualization and learning another culture: while social norms are related to culture, they can be a fool's gold when the goal is contextualization.  Social norms change and are subject to global cultural influences.  It would be very tempting to see the world as all having the same culture because you recognize what you think are the same social norms across multiple cultures.  Who doesn't know how to dance Gangnam Style?  Well, I don't.  But that's because I don't dance.  Globalization helps export social norms, making it seem that the whole world knows that Gangnam Style is a parody about excess and primacy of image over substance.  When in reality, the social norms which are being mocked are a particular cultural reality in Seoul.  The social dance is now global; the cultural message remains contextual.  To say this in a different way - we may all be singing praise songs on Sunday morning which originated in Australia, perpetuating a religio-social norm, but that doesn't guarantee that the message is understood in every context just as it is in the originating context.

Culturally, we were born blind.  As we mature, we learn the do's and don'ts of our native culture and the social norms which are acceptable.  How close you stand to the person next to you depends on whether you know them or not.  Don't slurp your soup.  Look someone in the eye when you speak.  And these are the more obvious ways of life we are trained to know without ever knowing where we learned them.  It only becomes obvious when we are in a different, cross-cultural setting, where our frame of reference no longer aids us in our ability to relate to others and we're walking about blindly.  If we want to relate better to others in another context, we need to adjust to understand life through the other's frame of reference.  Lingenfelter and Mayers propose an incarnational model for ministering cross-culturally.  The commitment of missionaries who incarnate themselves into different cultures is a result of a commitment to contextualization.

I'll give Contextualization one final shot, but it will have to wait a bit.  We've got a lot of things going on ministry-wise and I need to populate this blog with some of those good stories.  I'm sure you won't be disappointed.