Beavers, Magpies, & Contextualisation.

My old pastor William Taylor at St Helen’s
Bishopsgate, posted a video
on the topic of contextualisation to which the principal of my theological
college, Mike Ovey, has just
responded to
. The video and blogpost represent a discussion that’s been
going on in British evangelical circles for a number of years now and I hope
that it helps us to clarify our views and find common vision of how to preach
the Gospel in the years ahead. Mike’s piece is very powerful and makes all the
key points on the topic but I thought it might be worth adding a couple of
comments into the mix while the issue is under discussion. 

In the video, William comments that rather
than having a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other we should take the
Bible in both hands and focus our attention on that. I’m sure almost everyone
will agree that we need to study the Scriptures hard in our ministry. It’s hard
to think of any Reformed Evangelical advocate of contextualisation who would
disagree with that. However, I wonder if in contrasting contextualisation and
the work of understanding the text, we are in danger of misconceiving
contextualisation as something additional to the task of exegesis. Is it really
possible to say that we have understood the passage if we haven’t given thought
to the way in which the cultural location of the writer and original reader
shaped what was being communicated and heard? Even the most basic level of
giving a lexical definition of a Greek or Hebrew word is a task of
contextualisation. Which English word best captures the sense of Anthropos or doulous? A consideration of both 1st and 21st
century cultural context is necessary, if not sufficient, in order to translate
the text. Therefore, to imagine that by taking the Bible in both hands you have
left contextualisation behind is either to misunderstand contextualisation or
render the Scriptures mute. This is why I would argue that contextualisation is
inevitable: it’s something we simply can’t avoid doing as we read the text, let
alone seek to communicate it to others. The question, as Mike says, is whether
we do it well or badly.

Mike makes the great point that one reason we
need to contextualise in order to communicate the Gospel is that the sinful
human mind does not make the connections between the world around us and the
Gospel properly. He writes, 

while death is the
subject of much anguish and thought, the wrath of God towards humanity to which
it bears witness is widely denied, ignored or just unknown. In fact, the bible
teaches us to expect just this suppression, because – Romans 1:18-20 – we are
truth-suppressors. If the great truths such as God’s power and deity and his
wrath manifested by death really were self-evident facts to us, then clearly
the human mind would not have been captivated by sin, the Spirit’s work of
illumination would be redundant and the rationalists would be right after all:
all that is needed for gospel proclamation is a good logical argument that can
be accepted at the drop of a hat. The bible shows us this is wishful thinking
which understates the captivity of sin.

I would add that our captivity to sin is
expressed in cultural and communal ways. We corporately tell other stories and
invest death with other meanings than the one given by the Bible and as Gospel
communicators, we need to be aware of what those alternatives are. J.Gresham
Machen, the great 20th century scourge of liberalism wrote in his
piece ‘Christianity
and Culture’

It
would be a great mistake to suppose that all men are equally well prepared to
receive the gospel. It is true that the decisive thing is the regenerative power
of God. That can overcome all lack of preparation, and the absence of that
makes even the best preparation useless. But as a matter of fact God usually
exerts that power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human
mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God,
those favorable conditions for the reception of the gospel. False ideas are the
greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the
fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and
there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world
to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent
Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.
Under such circumstances, what God desires us to do is to destroy the obstacle
at its root…

 This
seems to be a biblical idea. The miracles of Jesus were not immediately and
properly understood by the people who saw them, even steeped as they were in
the Old Testament Scriptures. We see in Paul’s healing of lame man in Acts 14, that
far from refuting pagan ideas, Paul’s actions actually reinforce them until
Paul puts what’s happened into a larger context and explains its significance.
All this is to say that there is no such thing as a brute fact. Even the
resurrection of Jesus, that most relevant and stupendous event possible, can be
dismissed as peripheral and parochial by the unbelieving mind. Communicating
the Scriptures, therefore, involves contextualisation as a means of showing the
significance of the Gospel events to those whose location makes it seem banal
or inconsequential at first, or even fiftieth glance.

Finally, I’m not sure I totally understood
William’s beaver and magpie metaphor but it seems he’s saying that
contextualisation should be pretty easy – you don’t need to do courses on it,
anyway, unless you’re a martian. I can’t help thinking, though, that this approach
limits you to connecting with people from the same educational and
socio-economic background as yourself, who you therefore understand
instinctively, and who have some understanding of the Christian faith, perhaps
through a believing family or religious education. In that context, showing the
relevance of the Gospel might be as straightforward as William says. But one
wonders how big that mission field is for many of us and whether restricting
ourselves in that way is really faithful to the Gospel call to evangelise all
peoples, not just those who’s mind-set we intuitively understand. 

I
have heard, and delivered, enough sermons in British evangelical circles that
fail to connect with people’s lives to know that it isn’t as easy as described.
Perhaps we need a more realistic assessment of the quality and effectiveness of
our preaching to motivate us to work harder at the skill of culturally
contextualising our communication of the Gospel? In the end, contextualisation
is an application of our love for Christ and for our neighbour, a love that
seeks to ensure that nobody fails to understand the urgency of their need or
the wonder of the saviour. It’s love for our neighbour that will drive us to
think carefully about how to communicate to them, to learn from those who do it
well and, perhaps, who knows, even invest in taking a course in
contextualisation in order to do it better.

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