I was having a conversation with my wife about the degree that Christians in India should contextualize the gospel to make it intelligible to people, but yet not lose the meaning of the gospel. (It goes without saying that I married up). She said something to the effect of, “well, it’s like when people call vada “Indian donuts.’” Which is brilliant, but it needs some unpacking.
A vada, for the uninitiated, is a Indian savory fried snack, often made with spices. It’s rather good. And since it is fried and has a hole in the middle, a really quick analogy would be to a donut. In fact, I remember a well-meaning Indian aunty once offering me one and saying it was an “Indian donut.” That, however, was a mistake. The reason is that when I said vada is quite good, I meant that vada is quite good if you are expecting a vada. If you are expecting an actual donut…well, let’s just say it’s like Jacob waking up next to Leah. (Genesis 29:25)
So bookmark all that vada knowledge and let’s talk about contextualization.
A primer on contextualization
Contextualization is thinking about how to translate Christianity to the culture you are in. It is used a lot in conversations about missions, but is equally relevant to ministry here in the United States. Tim Keller gets to the heart of contextualization when he writes, “Sound contextualization means translating and adapting the communication and ministry of the gospel to a particular culture without compromising the essence and particulars of the gospel itself.” (Center Church, p89)
So on one hand, you have the danger of undercontexualizing the gospel, which is not adapting the communication and ministry enough to the culture. On the foreign mission field, this might look like an American missionary telling people that Jesus is a good shepherd to a culture that has not seen sheep. The care, provision, and protection that the Bible is trying to communicate is lost. At home, this may look like asking someone if they are “saved,” without first finding out if they know what they need to be saved from. The word “saved” doesn’t make a lot of sense to someone who doesn’t think that they are in danger.
On the other hand, you have the danger of overcontextualizing, adapting so much that we lose the gospel and confuse those we minister to. We may go to a Muslim context and say something along the lines of “Allah loved the world so much that he sent Jesus to die.” Now, strictly speaking, the Arabic word for God is Allah, so the sentence is true. However, in a Muslim context, you need to understand that God in the Koran is a completely different being than God in the Bible. If you don’t make the proper distinctions, you do a disservice to both the Christian and the Muslim faiths, and the gospel is hidden.
In America, this might be looking at our culture and seeing that the culture values love and acceptance. So, we try to gain some common ground by saying, “Jesus loves and accepts all people.” On the face of it, this is a super non-controversial statement. But, just as we need to listen well enough to know what Muslims mean when they say “Allah,” we need to listen well enough to what Americans mean when they say “love and acceptance.” Often the meaning of love in America is telling people that they are good people, that you have positive feelings towards them, and that they should continue doing whatever it is that they are doing. It is expressly not-as love manifests itself in the Bible-confronting them when they do wrong and calling them away from things that would destroy them. Therefore, we run the risk of overcontextualizing when we say that Jesus loves and accepts everyone and don’t define what we mean by “love.”
So what does this have to do with vada?
This brings us back to the vada example. What the sweet aunty did not realize when she offered me a vada, is that certain words have almost unshakable connotations. When I hear the word “donut,” I think of something sweet. If you are going to insist on calling something a donut that is not sweet, it would do me a huge service if you made that clear. (“Would you like an Indian donut? It is not sweet like the donuts that you are used to, but it is still really good in its own way.”)
In the same way, when we try to communicate truth about Jesus to a culture, whether domestic or abroad, it would serve us well to listen to that culture. We need to find out what certain words and concepts mean in the culture, and appropriately analogize or distinguish the way we use those same words and concepts. With these proper clarifications in place, we can let the people we speak to accept or reject our vada on its own merits.