Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Gospel and Cultures, 4

So, what do we mean when we use the word culture? And how would that relate to what we've been describing as gospel?

In her book, Theories of Culture, Kathryn Tanner notes a significant shift in how culture is thought of in relation to the postmodern turn. Earlier, modern understandings notions depicted culture like a piece of land. It is a fixed space, a conceptual whole, that informs all that we do. It's not so much that we think about our culture, but that we think with it (notice the culture as idea, or mental construct). It precedes us and determines us. From this perspective, a context holds still and translation is the cultural work of moving something from one place to another. Culture is one big thing with discernible features limited to a certain geography.

Postmodern theories see culture in less static terms. It's not so much a continent as a stream. It is always moving. In fact, it's not quite right to speak of culture in the singular. We are always impacted by cultures, several moving streams that pass through our lives. Cultures, therefore, are not a conceptual whole, but are in conversation. Tanner goes so far as to describe cultures as contested. Experiencing culture, therefore, is as much about the terms of discourse as the conclusions, as much about the process as the result (which is always moving).

If Tanner and others are right, then some of how we think about the church's relationship to the world is insufficient. If a culture is a static whole, then the world is simply a target for the church--a big dart board. Mission is often thought of as taking a static gospel to a stable world. The context becomes decorative, a matter of style ans tastes, that can be adornment for the gospel. God is completely on the side of the gospel, all the arrows pointing in the same direction.

As we have seen, gospel is not as static as we are sometimes led to believe. And if it is appropriate to refer to cultures as contested, fragmentary accounts of our lives, then we have two dynamic elements in play when we speak of gospel and cultures. Gospel is moving and cultures are moving. This changes, at least potentially, how we view the world and God's movement in it.

We've thought of gospel and culture as two fixed land masses. That tends to produce a certain kind of engagement. How would that change if we think of both as narrative structures, moving streams, that are mutually implicating? This is the question. I'm on this question and expect to be exploring it with congregations with whatever time and energy I have left. And here's the big thing for me at this point. Thinking of gospel and cultures these ways requires that God be active in both. And for many, that's a game changer.

1 comment:

Mark said...

I believe you are exactly right. It is the same dynamic when a believer comes to the Scriptures. If a believer comes to the point of truth in their reading of the Word, I don't believe that it is because he/she merely uses historical tools more accurately than another. Rather, I believe that the believer poses the questions of their life with great passion and thus the Bible interprets him/her as much as he/she interprets the Word. It must be the same kind of thing when the church attempts to reach out to culture.