Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Context Isn't Everything

I've been reading David Wells' new book, The Courage to be Protestant. It's a bit of a summary and update of his four previous works examining the evangelical landscape and the culture at large. I have to say that this book is a much easier read than his other books. And as I am reading it I find myself with varying reactions, both encouraged and frustrated. His observations are spot on as he discusses what he calls the marketers - those who have embraced a seeker-driven, doctrinally lite approach to church. And as he discusses the emergents - those who are attempting to co-opt the postmodern deconstruction of truth claims and thereby gut the Christian faith of its theological center.

And Wells makes a great point about the methodology of these two groups - they both are seeking to accommodate the cultural context we all live in. The marketers by adopting the consumer-driven approach of surveying their constituency and determining what will draw the most numbers and meet their perceived needs. The emergents by adopting the postmodern cultural ethos and trying to blend it with some form of Christian belief. In both cases, as Wells points out, the movements have drifted from the historic Christian position of sola Scriptura - Scripture alone as the authoritative rule and revelation of God for His church. In it's place they have substituted sola cultura - raising the cultural context to a level of authority above that of the word of God.

Much has and is being said and written these days about culture and Christianity, about various views on "contextualization" of the Gospel and the church. I think both the marketers and the emergents have got it wrong on this point. In fact, Wells sums up this problem better than anyone I've seen as he says this:

The desire of marketers and emergents to engage the culture is commendable. Engaging it, though, is not the same thing as capitulating to it. Missionaries know the difference. They
know they can adapt to local dress and blend in by learning the language and by fitting in with the accepted rhythms of daily life. They can understand the fears and hopes of those they serve without actually embracing those hopes and fears themselves. However, the day they accept the worldview of those they work among, it is time to go home. They have nothing to say anymore. If the evangelical church does not want to lose its voice, it will have to ensure that its engagement with postmodern culture is done biblically, thoughtfully, and conscientiously.

Here is where I think these movements make their fatal error. By not just engaging the cultural context that we all live and minister in and to, but crossing that line and adopting the values and beliefs and underlying worldview assumptions that the unbelieving world around us clings to. A direct violation of the Scriptural command to be "in the world, but not of it." It is impossible to blend historic Christian faith, which by nature is a truth-based worldview and belief system, with a cultural context that rejects outright any claims to truth. It is impossible to adapt the body of biblical Christian theology and doctrine that reveals Jesus Christ as the ultimate reality and Lord who demands submission, to a cultural context that exalts the self as the center of all reality. In both of these attempts to contextualize Christian faith, the line is crossed between recognizing and adapting to the culture, and adopting it's core beliefs and presuppositions. And the result is the same in both cases - something other than real Christian faith.

When it comes to understanding and interpreting the word of God, one rule rises to the top: context is everything. We have to understand the Bible in its original context so as to rightly understand the original meaning. But when it comes to ministering the Gospel of Christ in our (post) modern world, that rule cannot be allowed to rise to the top. Cultural context is not everything. Only the enduring truth of the faith once for all delivered to the saints is everything.

1 comment:

James Kubecki said...

Well said! (Both from Wells and you!)