Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Gospel and Cultures

There are few conversations in Christian theological circles these days more full of energy than the one concerning gospel and cultures. There are many reasons for this, some external and some internal to the dynamics of the Christian experience. Some of the energy is simply around defining terms. For instance, what do we mean by culture, or as you'll see in my use, cultures. Several, notably Kathryn Tanner, have traced the shift in the meaning of this word. It once referred only to the achievement of a particular society, or more precisely, the achievement of a certain class. Only some were cultured, namely the elite.

Now we refer to culture as a whole way of life, as a web of significance, as something in which all of us participate and find a common life. In fact, culture is no longer simply something we achieve or produce. It precedes us, shaping our identities to a large extent through language, convention, rituals, and images.

One more shift, one under way in my opinion, is to see culture less as a spatial category, and more in temporal terms. Culture precedes us because it is moving, like a stream, which means it is also eluding us in some ways. We can no longer speak of it as something fixed. It is less a continent to explore and map (spatial), but more a stream to navigate (temporal). And because it is moving and not fixed, we also recognize that culture(s) is both plural and specific. Some have stopped using the word culture at all, preferring cultural. We can say something is cultural without nailing something down as the culture. Others talk about cultural flows, a variety of streams in which we find ourselves. No matter how you speak of it, notions of culture are still being explored.

This is an important conversation for Christianity because of its unique relationship through the centuries to cultures. Christianity has proved fairly nimble in crossing cultural boundaries. Imagine, for instance, the boundary crossing impulse in telling the story of Jesus in a language other than the one he spoke. Islam and Judaism, generally speaking, are much more wed to a particular cultural expression rooted in a particular language. Christians are eager to translate the Bible into as many languages as possible and do not require adherents to read the Bible in its original language. This is a pretty big deal.

It is also striking to me that the New Testament is comprised of documents representing a season of transition in the life of the people of God. It is a missionary literature propelled by the impulse that there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. This universalizing tendency in Christianity has to take into account every culture it encounters.

There is much to say here, and perhaps over time we can say more. But what I think is still largely lacking in the contemporary conversation is a rigorous discussion of gospel.

I often hear people say that the gospel is a constant, but the tactics, methods, or modes that we use are cultural. The gospel, here, is a fixed content. Like spatial understandings of culture, it is a fixed container. The way to make the gospel relevant is to give it a contemporary facelift, communicate it in ways that are meaningful to a particular culture. The relationship is kernel and husk. The gospel is the kernel, the seed that never changes. The husks are the cultural elements that can be peeled away. They are temporary, simply a matter of expediency. Relevance here is using movies or U2 concert footage to make the gospel more culturally accessible.

This is to be preferred to a view of gospel that overidentifies everything we do as the gospel. Some churches won't change at all because they think of everything as fixed. They think of Christianity in spatial terms. It can be identified completely and finally through certain characteristics, or marks of the church, that are immutable.

The problems here are numerous. Most critique from a theological perspective focuses on the naive understanding of the relationship between content and form. How we do something is just as much content as what we say. Form is meaning, and the adoption of cultural forms is a risk, perhaps inevitable, that threatens the particular formfulness of Christianity.

I appreciate this critique and have said things like this before. But I am coming to think that the greater problem in a kernel-husk view of gospel and culture is that it always makes the world a secondary concern to church. The church has the kernel, the world the husks. The world is only valuable as an illustration. The church can settle the gospel and its own identity beforehand in some kind of pure form, without any engagment with the world. This tempts theology to think of its task as settling certain topics related to certain notions of God (primarily owing to a substantialist ontology, i.e. spatial), rather than tracking the leading of a living God in the world he loves (more temporal?).

So, I want to see if there might be a similar gain for the term gospel to the one that delivered notions of culture from a fixed, spatial understanding.

And gospel is the place to start, I believe, for this reason. It is the term coined by the early Christians to indicate the mode of relationship they had with others. What does it mean to define a relationship in terms of news? In distinction to law or instruction or mystery or even truth? This is a vitally important question.


seanpalmer said...

"What does it mean to define a relationship in terms of news?"

I'm fascinated by this question. I'm an admitted news junkie. I can't get enough, and like most people, I prefer a particular "flavor" of news (but I'm not saying which). At any rate, I engage news in a particular way. When watching shows, reading articles, etc...I am always aware of where the information/analysis is coming from, what perspective it holds, and, quite frankly, what view of the world would shape me if I were to listen to this voice alone. Granted, I have educational training that taught me to ask those kinds of questions, but my sense is that the best way to receive news is to parse it.

So for me, "news" suggests deeper engagement with the material itself. Most people likely do this because we live with a sense that today's news shapes today and tomorrow. News is present and forward looking. The gospel, as some seem to practice it, is backward looking. To have a "pure gospel" (whatever that means), suggests looking at the past, reading scripture as past, and attempting the never-commanded-task of restoring the past.
We all know that the gospel is news, but we function as if it is "yesterday's news."

I preach nearly exclusively in present-tense language. We "sit and table with Jesus" and "gather around the fireplace with Paul this morning." Remarkably, the most consistent feedback I receive is about "feeling as if we are there." This, I think, is why you raise a good issues in terms of the gospel and spatial considerations. Seemingly, spatial language does lock us away, as if the gospel is archived document we are trying to preserve hoping that no one will touch it in fear of it being changed. Not only does this do a disservice to the gospel itself, it makes our participation in it almost null.

Mark Love said...

Good stuff, Sean. I think the deeper engagement is necessary for something to remain newsworthy as well. But that is for another post.

Casey McCollum said...

I sincerely doubt that you have missed this but just in case...

Mark Love said...


you are a true friend.


Bryce said...

"What does it mean to define a relationship in terms of news?"

I too am wondering what this means. I like sean's response, and I'd like to extend the analysis a little bit to reflect the current nature of news transmission.

Here's the thought: Twitter, Tumblr, and news aggregators, are changing the way or "form" we receive news. I think the search for authentication or a trustworthy news source is now secondary to the trust we have for those in our community that re-post a story or tweet an event.

By linking to a story, a person in one's online or real community is calling something news. The burden of proof to call something news is not on the author of a particular story, but on the one who re-linked it.

I guess the parallel with the gospel might be that when a christian calls the story the good news, the primary authentication of the news lies not with the authority of Bible, but in the trust that listeners give to the particular messenger.

This is not really new, and it is probably the reverse of your question, that is, "news defined as a relationship" instead of a "relationship defined as news".

But it's the best I could do to think about something I haven't thought about before. How do begin to answer your question?

qb said...

Lots of wisdom here. At Richard Beck's prompting, I picked up the book _Great Good Places_, and my whole understanding of a gospel-formed life is being utterly reconstructed, primarily because of the phenomena you have put your finger on in this post. And the reconstruction is being reinforced by N. T. Wright's _Jesus and the Victory of God_ and the account he gives there of Jesus' aims.

Maybe it's pithier simply to say this: It appears to me that my whole understanding of discipleship has been terribly distorted by looking at it through an ecclesial lens, for some 40+ years.

Thanks for the provocation.


Mark Love said...


Welcome to the conversation. I am very interested in your further reflections along these lines. I think that the newsworthiness will depend in some sense to its capacity for wisdom, which is more than just information, but some kind of practicing use of collected, communal experience. The real possibility for social networking stuff lies in the area of wisdom it seems to me, as opposed to just getting information which requires a different kind of validation.


i agree that this is potentially a massively reorienting notion. it certainly would put God back in the driver's seat in terms of the tasks of theology. that in turn, would alter our notions of eccleisiality.