sadness and surprise in asia major

After a month in Asia Major I return home with a heavy heart. Indonesia, UAE, Pakistan and Malaysia. Places where the Christian minority have it tough. Harassed. Marginalised. Shunned. Slandered. And yes, persecuted. One man with whom we work was kidnapped earlier this year...

a big sadness
It saddens me, even annoys me. I guess I should shift across to it being lament-able in a biblical way, but at the moment I am still annoyed. I'll get there eventually. People from the majority faith in these countries demand a brand of freedom of religion when they immigrate to the West (and become a minority themselves) - but this is the very freedom which they have refused to give to Christians as a minority back in their homelands. It is never right. It is always wrong. It does not endear this faith to me.

While in these countries I lived a lot in two letters in the New Testament written to churches all around Asia Minor: 1 Peter and Revelation. I have been captivated by the first book for decades - but now the second one is taking hold of me as well. Wonderful books for Asia Major today where issues of security and persecution and corruption head the list of concerns. They understand the sadness. At a conference I had the opportunity to hear a Filipino scholar, Rico, speak about the 'lament psalms' and an Indian scholar, Paulson, speak about the 'imprecatory psalms' - more biblical raw material by which to help me interpret this annoyance. Rico actually gave me a copy of his new little book on lament, It's OK to be Not OK.

a little surprise
It surprises me, even makes me nervous. At one point in the month I attended a Consultation on Scripture for 100 evangelical scholars from all around Asia Major. I listened to 27 papers being presented and debated. Fascinating. Again and again, I heard evangelicals default to the need for a contextual theology, letting the context help shape the agenda for an engagement with the biblical text. At one level this is a given. Of course this needs to happen. The last thing that is needed is a recycling and a cutting-and-pasting of Western categories and agendas. [NB: the fact  that in the majority of countries which I visit in Asia Major people are still singing the hymns given to them by the missionaries is an example of this need].

But the quickness with which this bunch of evangelical scholars defaulted to the importance of context caught me by surprise. Defaulting to context so easily closes a good door and opens a bad door. If we too quickly advocate the uniqueness of our own context, we will rush on from the opportunity to listen humbly and openly to the Word in the company of both the Lord of the Word and his people from other contexts. I do wonder if there is  more that remains constant in human nature and across these cultures than is readily recognised? I do wonder if something good is lost by not letting the 'hermeneutical spiral' kick-in and the asymptotic journey to true truth progress? A good door is closed too quickly.

And if careful care is not taken, a bad door is opened. When the context becomes too important it is so often the first step in the journey toward cultural accommodation and capture. There is a slippery slope. Truth becomes made in the image of the culture. This is exactly what we see in popular brands of Western Christianity where relevance becomes an idolatrous pursuit - and also in its brands of theological education. Self-proclaimed contextual theological education is exactly the brand which I try to dissuade people from engaging, simply because it does not respect the content of the text enough. Now I hasten to add that while I heard nothing that caused me alarm at the Consultation, I did get nervous and twitchy - and I was a bit surprised.

POSTSCRIPT: My sense is that one of the biggest adjustments for foreigners visiting these countries in Asia Major is the sight of women completely covered up, with only their eyes visible. On my return home, in transit in Melbourne airport, I came across this piece in The Age about young women in Oz. More sadness and surprise. It does make me wonder which cultural context has the bigger problem.

nice chatting



Tim Bulkeley said…
Paul, I wonder about your thoughts on the difference between the need for pastors and theologians to "contextualise" in places once dominated by a foreign Christian culture (ex-"mission-fields") and the ways Western Christians do/should?

It seems to me that in places where Christianity as currently lived has still the some of the air of a foreign import the need to really contextualise is urgent and profound. But in places where Christianity has been "at home" for long periods the greater need is to listen to "others" expressing their faith and studying the Scriptures in their ways (to help correct our "natural" biases).
Paul said…
Yes, point taken, Tim (and sorry for delay - I just saw your comment now).

The posture of listening is crucial wherever we are. I have changed my mind on many things over the years (that Carey chapel series on 'my most recent conversion' comes to mind). But the 'content' made me do it, not the 'context' so much...

I do find that the 'contextual' theology emphasis gives space for difference (and therefore listening), without there being any great compulsion to probe for a wider agreement and a deeper unity. How much correcting of 'natural biases' actually goes on within the overtly contextual approach? Where is the challenge to change? It seems to me that it defaults too easily to 'you have your precious truths and I have mine'. Where and when does trans-contextual truth push people around and make them change? I just do not see that impulse to be very evident.

Good stuff - back to your paddocks! :)


Popular Posts