Contextualization is an important part of missiology. This is the process of discovering culturally appropriate means of communicating the transforming power of the gospel. Authenticity requires the missionary to live out the gospel with integrity according to the assumptions and priorities of his or her own culturally shaped worldview. However, missions necessitates cross-cultural sensitivity and the missionary must find appropriate expressions of the gospel that help others discover how the gospel provides life transformation according to their unique worldview assumptions and cultural priorities.
Moving from Book to Movie: An Analogy
Moving from God’s revelation in scripture to transformed lives in another culture requires an expertise which can be illustrated by the process of taking a book and representing it in movie form. The work of re-shaping a story so that the message, the emotion and the spirit of the book is revealed in movie form, as with The Lord of the Rings, parallels the hermeneutical process required for missionaries to bring the gospel to life in another cultural context. The cross-cultural missionary begins with revelation of God in the Bible and, like a script writer for a movie, works to see its message transformed and revealed in the story of people’s lives.
In the appendices of The Two Towers DVD version (all following quotes are taken from the appendix “From book to script: Finding the Story” in The Two Towers) the writers of the script explain that when they “deviate” from the original book, they do so because of the tension between the restraints of the context within which the story is to be told (the movie dynamics) and the desire to be faithful to the essence of the story, the emotional drama and the development of the great themes. Thus changes need to be made “on some levels”, to fit the movie context as well as maintain the integrity of the story.
“Jesus” Movies require Interpretation
As an example of good and bad interpretive processes, consider some recent movies about the life of Christ. The CBS Jesus movie was a less than perfect, but thoughtfully adapted and theologically interpretive movie about Jesus that sought to be true to the meaning and essence of the gospels using the modern movie medium. Compare that with the dull, unthinking movie I began to watch, but never finished, from the book of Matthew which simply provided word for word Scripture quotations with background action (and Scripture references given in the corner!). It is through reflection and interpretation that we delve into the heart and spirit of Jesus. Mere repetition of his words without thought for their relevance within a particular cultural context and without an appropriate use of the medium to provide meaning and impact does not do justice to the gospel.
Contextualization requires Interpretation
Similarly, a thoughtful, interpretive and faithful approach to the contextualization of the message of scripture is required of the missionary. Contextualization requires translation, adaptation and an assignment of priorities. In my MTh dissertation on Contextualized Bible Storying, I dealt with the response of Muslim Sindhi men to John 13:1-10, the incident of Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet. One major theme identified by the men revolved around the tension in Peter’s interaction with Jesus. Although it was good of Peter to be concerned with Jesus’ honor, in the minds of the Sindhi men it was totally inappropriate for him to refuse his teacher. In the Sindhi culture the teacher demands absolute obedience. Although not a theme with any prominence in the culture of the west, for that eastern culture the relationship of the disciple to the teacher is significant. An appropriate application of this reality would be to adapt the story in its telling so that aspect of Jesus’s lesson is given priority.
Contextualization: “our attempt to bring it to life”
Such cultural sensitivity in presenting the message of scripture parallels the attitude of the script writers of the Lord of the Rings concerning the change they made to the age of Frodo. Even though a young Frodo was not the original intent of the author, the central purpose and meaning of the story is not obscured by the change and, in the movie context, the younger Frodo represents the innocence of Hobbits in a better way than a middle aged Hobbit would have accomplished. “You can’t be a guardian of this [as with purists defending the original book]. It’s an organic thing. The film is what it is. The books are untouchable. They exist. They will always exist. This is one group of fans’ version. We are all fans of these books. We all love these books. And this is our interpretation, our vision, our attempt to bring it to life.”
Contextualization demands a hermeneutic that attempts to transform the Bible into a living expression of the gospel within a unique, culturally shaped reality. This requires a dialectical relationship between the revelation of God and the reality within which people live. It requires a transformation of the words and concepts into living action and relationship. It requires an incarnation of the Book into their lives in such a way that on one level it is completely different (as a book is different from a movie) while on another level it represents precisely the meaning and truth of the book. The purpose of the Book is fulfilled in their lives as God’s reality touches and transforms their reality.
Transforming Book into Story
As a missionary who has spent much time seeking appropriate expressions of the gospel for the Sindhi people, I would paraphrase the script writer of the Two Towers in this way, “The Book is untouchable. It exists. It will always exist. The contextualized gospel is my version as I attempt to express its relevance to the Sindhi people. We all love this Book. This expression of the gospel is my interpretation, my vision, my attempt to bring it to life.” My prayer for the Sindhis is that they will catch the vision and repeat the process by transforming the written message into the story of their lives.