The Gospel Interprets the Culture - extract from Culture and Context module
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All of us minister the gospel in a context. As we spend time with people in our neighbourhoods who we are trying to reach, we spot patterns in thinking, behaviour and values.
To be sure, every person is different and unique, but as we talk with people and observe their lives, we notice common ideas and trends that people share in common with others. We find personal objections to the gospel but also common objections. We often wonder, if we could just capture these common elements and analyse them, would we be able to find ways of connecting with the culture in order to speak the gospel into our context?
While we would like to understand ways of connecting, we also know that the church is a body of sojourners who are on their way home to the Jerusalem above. We live counter cultural lives (1 Peter 4). Thinking about contextualisation means we have to be both concerned about connecting, but also about avoiding letting the culture set the agenda.
The concept of “worldview” is often used to grasp how people understand themselves and their world, which will affect how they hear and respond to the gospel. A worldview is a set of assumptions about the world and ourselves that guides a person’s interpretations of events and decision making.
The idea runs that we receive our worldview from the culture we are born into. If you know anyone from a different cultural background, you can grasp something of what the concept is getting at. In life’s big moments (birth, marriage, suffering and death) we see human responses, common to all peoples since Adam, but operating in culturally specific ways. For example, the need to maintain a good standing shapes responses to severe illness in some communities: people can withdraw to hide the sickness from others who might suggest the illness is a punishment.
The basic assumptions of a people group shape their view of life events. The concept of worldview seeks to identify the way in which a person’s cultural context influences their interpretation of the world. Tim Keller uses the phrase “cultural narrative” to get at the same kind of idea. A person’s view of the world is not a static lens. It’s more of a story of how certain aspects of the world work.
When we are converted, we come to the gospel from within a cultural context. We respond to the call of God in the gospel from where we are situated. A key question that you will need to wrestle with in your life and ministry is this: how does the gospel interact with the situation, context and worldview? Does the gospel fit the situation or does the gospel override the context? If the answer to either of those questions is “yes”, how does it do so?
The gospel is king in communication and it interprets culture. Cultural engagement must be theologically led. That is to say, the word of God reigns in interpretation and addresses every culture. Rather than letting the cultural context set the terms of engagement for the gospel, the gospel addresses all cultures and helps us understand what a culture is.
This is more than saying a Biblical worldview trumps all others—it does! But it is saying that the reason a biblical worldview interprets all others is because a biblical worldview is actually formed under the transformative power of the self-revelation of God. In other words, a biblical worldview is not one option among many. Rather, it is the product of a mind shaped by God’s transforming work through his word.
This doesn't mean we can ignore other worldviews and cultures; it means we engage by listening to their assumptions and speaking God’s word to those assumptions, to affirm what accords with the reality of God and his design for humanity, and to challenge what doesn’t. In other words, we need to approach the basic assumptions of a people group and their cultural narratives through the gospel. These narratives are in fact attempts to usurp the gospel worldview. However, we can also show how the gospel subversively fulfils those narratives.
The first thing a faithful gospel minster must do then, in order to understand their context, is not rush out to get a degree in media studies or sociology, but rather to walk in obedience to God’s word, having our minds and hearts transformed so that we see the world as God sees it.
Sociology and the human sciences can describe some of the relationships between people and institutions, artefacts and culture, etc., but ultimately, they see us all as fundamentally culture-bound entities. The primary context which interprets all contexts—God’s economy of grace—is completely factored out. They start out from the assumption that we are fundamentally made of our cultural situation.
The only way to truly get a sense of who we are and our cultural location is to hear a word from outside of us—to be authoritatively addressed and transformed by our creator and Lord.
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