The Gospel in the Key of Minor: Contextualizing the Gospel to a Cynical Generation

Note: This was the last paper I wrote upon completing my bachelors degree in Theology. This one, although being the standard boring papers that probably no one would read, is one that has some sort of emotional attachment when I wrote it. Probably one of the favorite paper I wrote. This post of course is not poetry but theology. I’ve tweaked some parts here and there so this is a modified version of what I handed in to be graded.

Jesus is So Cool
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Introduction

            Contextualization is not a new concept. It is an idea developed out of certain probing by people who saw that there were problems when relating the Christian message in different cultural settings. Because of the heightened issues that have been gleaned from countless experiences in conveying the Christian message to these cultures, it seems that there should be a guiding principle that should direct how Christians approach how they are to convey the Christian message of Jesus in an understandable way to different people living with different cultural settings. This is where contextualization comes in. This essay will first work through understanding the principles of contextualization. The second part of the essay will then seek to apply some of the principles in an attempt to convey the message to a particular culture or sub-culture, as I have tried to do so to what I ascribed later as a “cynical generation.” The last half of the essay is to seek how contextualization is realized when applied to the setting of discipleship.  

1.      Principles of Contextualization

One of the defining reasons why Christianity has spread so widely over different cultures and regions is underlined by the fact of its adaptability to intersect its message to different cultures and settings.[1] Part of the reason of its adaptability is how the message of Christianity has been shared across cultural and ethnic barriers. Understood simply, the task of contextualization is explaining the gospel in the context of a people that will make sense to them in a way that is relevant pertaining to the way of their context, people groups, cultures and religious groups. Flemming notes that the term contextualization is relatively a new concept[2] which has been largely connected to the scope of missionary fields.[3] Embedded in the construction of the new term, Christians throughout the centuries have tried in their way to communicate the Christian message through creeds or by basing it on their historical context, but there have been dissatisfaction following this in the turn of globalization as most of the ways of expressing the Christian message were mostly Western ways.

            What is culture and the implication of culture?

Culture is something that is pervasive and massive if one is to seek a definite understanding concerning it. According to Kevin Vanhoozer, he tries to give an understanding as to what it means which is “the meaning dimension of social life.”[4] In this manner what Vanhoozer is trying to convey is that the landscape of where people live in stating the social life, is given color by the culture that directs and gives meaning to it. The color that shape cultures are the values and beliefs that inhibit it and that is why “every part of culture communicates something about meaning of the whole,”[5] in this case the social life.

Given the fact that culture is what defines the social life in the way that it gives meaning to it, if it is put then to a grander perspective of globalization, what we have is a plurality of cultural expressions. This is given to the fact that each nation or ethnic race of people has their own definitive cultures embedded in their social life.

Just looking at the landscape of possible definitions of culture as viewed above would see the massive task that is given for those who seek to convey the gospel of Jesus, faithfully and exhaustively in its full meaning and in the case of communicating it for life transformation. This is where contextualization comes in and tries to modulate the radical task of offering dialogue between the Christian message defined by how one explains the scripture with the perspective of life transformation and doing so in a way that would be conveyed meaningfully, taking into consideration the social context of each culture.

 

            Contextual Theology

Contextualization, the task that it is to undertake has the understanding of communicating a defining narrative controlled by a figure of importance in a way that takes into consideration cultures. What is meant by this is that the gospel message is hinged on the narrative or story of Jesus who is the focus of the scriptures. All tasks of contextualizing the message of the gospel stands or falls under this narrative; the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in an encapsulated way, that Jesus is the pinnacle of God’s encompassing story in his dealings with Israel and mankind as a whole. This is the centre of contextualizing the message as it seeks to dialogue within an existing culture. This infusion is seen as a dialogue between the defining narrative (Jesus’ story) and culture that it engages in. This dialogue is moderated by the non-negotiable centre, the figure (Jesus) that defines the message. The ultimate purpose in this contextual dialogue is not just to open understanding but for life transformation, where the defining narrative takes precedence in proposing a third way to live.

 2.      Communicating the Gospel to a Cynical Generation

Much of the messages that are generally played out by the modern church largely display a black and white reality. That life without Jesus is empty and one that is driven by Jesus is meaningful. I do believe that this is real and true, but to a cynical generation, statements or messages that allude to that form of communication rarely gets heard, or if it does seep into the hearts of hearers, the excitement does not last.

Part of the reason for this is that in more ways than none, it is a disconnected message that entails little or no identification with the struggles people go through in life. In the demographic of living life in the world or what we would call reality, such black and white distinctions very rarely project much truth in them. Take for example the principle of retribution or what is popularly known as karma. This principle that it so plays out in life is that, if one does good things, good things will go their way but if one does bad things, he or she will reap the benefits of the bad thing that he or she had done. The problem with this view is that the dimension of probability in the realms of reality is spaced out. Things in reality do not always work in such black and white terms. Sometimes bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people.

The problem that I see is that the bulk of messages coming from churches now follow in some ways a-karma-like-infused principle to spirituality. That if one is in God one will receive blessing and protection and if one is not he or she shall suffer. These for me are seeds that would easily open doors to cynicalism.

Often, cynicalism is a reaction to spirituality that avoids grappling with reality, suffering, meaninglessness, injustice or weakness. The overly infused message of what is projected as the gospel sounds more like positivism that leans towards what I had earlier mentioned as karma infused Christianity. Andrew Byres gives some potent understanding concerning cynicism. He defines it as “an embittered disposition of distrust born out of painful disillusionment.”[6] The cynical disposition according to Byers is a reaction to what he calls “pop Christianity” which refers to,

“the over simplified theology and the trite sentimentality that is so rife throughout the Western church. This is a populist version of Christianity that is “purged of complexities, nuance, and darkness” and lacking “poetry and emotional breadth.” Many illnesses can be identified under the rubric of pop Christianity, to which cynicism has become a common response.”[7]

Although as Byers mentions as sickness in a Western context, much of what is seen in urban churches in Malaysia are similar in nature as well, with what is mentioned as cynicism being a negative response to Christianity, and this, more so with the demography of younger adults.

In contextualizing the message of the gospel to a cynical generation, one presumably needs to consider a modified way of presenting the gospel. Modified as in having wisdom, in not overplaying an overtly hopeful and positive message (although the Christian message is in fact a message filled with hope), but rather detour in a different route. Since what I mentioned earlier concerning much of the message of the church seems to devoid complexities in life, where reality does not go smoothly with one following Christ or not, a good point of consideration is to point listeners or those we are conversing with to the narrative of Jesus’ life, death and crucifixion as a starting point.

 

            The gospel in the key of minor

The analogy that I use comes from a musical key that in most cases exemplify sounds that would churn mellow moods or for that matter dark moments. Most songs in contemporary culture follow this general principle and this would be a good analogy to use in portraying the gospel to a cynical generation. The analogy assumes an atmosphere of darkness and in some ways Jesus’ death and crucifixion portray this. A good example of how cynics view the complexities of life can be exemplified in the lyrics of this song,

“[chorus:] cause the sun always sets, the moon always falls, it feels like the end just pay no mind at all, keep rolling, rolling, life must go on…[bridge:] we have our misfortunes the darkest of days, we must endure and keep strong, just look to the morning the promise awaits, and know that this life must go on.”[8]

 

The song above portrays a reality that speaks both about the realistic conditions of life which entails hard times and suffering but in some ways speaks a message of hope and survival. This is typical of most songs which resonate with a cynical generation who holds both the tensions of sufferings and hardships and the necessary mode of surviving through. But missing element to moving on is to the question, “On what basis is one supposed to move on?”

Jesus’ life portrayed one that most would adhere to as exemplary in terms of ethical and moral standards. Ghandi himself was one who was attracted to Jesus’ ethical and moral standards. Jesus could be presented as a man who was highly spiritual and morally robust in how he lived his life. This would be a good model for us to highlight in telling a cynical generation concerning Jesus. Scripture adhered to this as we can find in Luke where on the mouths of those ascribed to as rebels being crucified alongside Jesus spoke and said “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:41).

But taking a radical overture, although being someone who did nothing wrong to deserve death at the arms of authorities, Jesus who was a model of spiritual and ethical virtue in following God and his commands met with a fate that spoke of injustice and meaninglessness. Here we have a narrative of someone who was very much close with God but suffered regardless of how he lived in following God’s command.

This narrative as opposed to one that defies any form of contradicting force in living in the realms of reality bridges the gap for those who are cynical of an overtly positive message of hope, that sometimes exhibits the constrains of protection from God who is largely portrayed by a reductionist form of Christianity that avoids talking about contradictory stances in life. A message portrayed in this direction would, I presume open interest to those opposed to a largely positive message to resonate on that part where life is unfair and even one who followed God closely encountered as well. Jesus is also seen as one who cried out in pain at his abandonment when he wailed “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” (Matthew 27:46) This particular scene in the narrative speaks in terms of identification. Jesus, although being someone spiritual and who modelled a life following the moral and ethical demands to God’s command, himself went through a period of abandonment.

But the story of Jesus does not end there. Although it explicitly shows that a life of faith is not a life devoid of suffering and at points the emotional feeling of abandonment of God, it ends on a resonating major note which rings hope. Jesus, after being crucified, dead and buried, rose up from the dead. It is at this point the narrative of Jesus’ life portrayed in all his following of God, through suffering, death and resurrection speak more about how life on earth is. The defining key note here is, hope entails, not a life that is devoid of suffering and meaninglessness but the promise is that in the end God will come through as he has in the details of Jesus’ life.

A cynical generation wants and longs to hear a story not in terms of victory but a connection point that speaks in line with the hurts and longing that they are going through. Jesus’ life is portrayed in such a way that it speaks about that life, one that is steeped in the soils of reality but also one that directs to a better hope than just a strong will to move on.

3.      The Task of Discipling a Generation of Cynics

The task of finding a contextual ground for discipleship to a cynical generation is somewhat hard to construct. There are many things to be addressed and worked out. Because of the brevity of this essay, it can only do so much as to offer some gleanings in the hope of how this can be done. I have to confess that there are no hard and fast rules to what should be considered but this would need further exploration by way of reflection and experimentation.

One of the things that is vitally important for one engaging this generation of cynics is on the model of openness and receptivity of questions pertaining to faith. This mark of engagement that is fuelled with a disposition of not being shaken by questions is the few traits of dealing meaningfully with this generation of people. Rather than refuting questions because they seem off key or in some ways opposed to the gospel or the message of Jesus, one needs rather to respond by affirming the validity of their questions and asking those who have asked them to explain as to why they ask these questions. A good portrayal of this would be in terms of how Paul engaged with the Athenians. Although this seems more like a gospel presentation case for basing communication, I believe it should also be modelled in a discipleship context because many of those who are in the generation that I presumably mention are bible illiterate or have their own pretensions to what they understand as the Christian message. Therefore this needs to be subtly deconstructed to the Jesus message.

The principles introduced by Flemming in his book are those that can be followed in doing so. Flemming observes that Paul addressed Athenians with respect by calling them “very religious” which Flemming says in a term that is “neutral and nonjudgmental sense.”[9] But the address does not end with that, as Paul continues to probe a deeper reality at hand, which ascribes to their need, in the Athenians statue to an unnamed God. This unknowing becomes the platform in which Paul used to address his presentation of this unnamed God as a means of bridging the gap in unravelling a mystery to them.[10]

The principle underlined here works with what I have mentioned earlier. Now to put it more clearly, an example needs to be presented in how this will work in terms of discipleship. Flemming, in the last chapter of his book, briefly addressed some important themes that a postmodern generation longs and in some ways need to understand. The first on the list was on the importance of community. Community is something that the church is missing at the moment in terms of understanding. Part of the reason is due to translating the word church to a place or building when it should be something in connection with community.

Say for example, someone one was discipling asked a question concerning his or her disillusionment about church. And in following Paul’s principle one affirms the questioner’s disillusionment and addressing in a way that this questioner is in some ways right to convey this question and frustration about what she sees as church. Let me assume that this person, is steeped in culture and knows a thing or two concerning heavy metal music and propose to explain church in the context of a community ascribed as metal heads, which are those who are ardent or hardcore followers of a particular subculture which reveres metal music.

I have written a blog post ascribing to what the church can learn from heavy metal communities which details the journey of Sam Dunn[11], who while writing his dissertation paper based on anthropology which focuses on metal heads, in understanding sociological and anthropological insights concerning this group of people. There are three things that I found fascinating in Dunn’s documentary; (1) metal heads were considered outcasts because of the nature of their musical tastes being underground or countering pop-culture (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11; 4:1-5); (2) there was a keen sense of belonging forged from because of the music that connects them; and (3) they were ardent devotees to the group they belonged to as if to say, “Once a metal head always a metal head.”[12] These three points translate well into forming a bridge in terms of modulating cultural trends in a way that it deconstructs a dented view of church and in that way offers a reconstructive passageway in proposing a more biblical model of what church is supposed to mean.

In short what I have proposed above is a conversational way in which those discipling this generation that I have termed cynical. It has more to do with acceptance and openness in conveying biblical truths by way of conversing a cultural trend, deconstructing an old model of thinking and proposing a more biblical view concerning a certain subject.

 

Conclusion

 

            The task of contextualization is something that the church should and must consider in the reality that each culture has embedded in it differing beliefs and values. Christians need to understand this at heart in order to be able and clear communicators to those they seek to evangelize and disciple. But it must remember that relevance in terms of communicating the gospel in a given context clearly has to be controlled by what I have mentioned earlier as the defining narrative, and this point to Jesus and Scripture. But the overall purpose of communicating the gospel is not for the purpose of just giving understanding. The ultimate purpose of communicating the gospel is for life change and transformation in following Jesus.

 

 


[1] Clark, David K. To Know and Love God: Method for Theology.(Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway. 2003). p.99

[2] Flemming, Dean. Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission. (Apollos: Leicester: 2005) p. 15

[3] According to David Clark the term arose due to a response of how “theology and missions were done in the light of globalization” in 1972, being a term that replaced indigenization “in a report of the Theological Education Fund of the World Council of Churches (WCC).” Clark, David K. To Know and Love God: Methods for Theology. Pg 102

[4] Vanhoozer; Kevin J; Charles A. Anderson; Michael J. Sleasman. Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007) Pg.24

[5] Vanhoozer; Kevin J; Charles A. Anderson; Michael J. Sleasman. Everyday Theology. Pg.24

[6] Byres, Andrew. Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011) Pg.9

[7] Byres, Andrew. Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint. Pg. 10

[8] The song is taken from a band named “Alter Bridge” entitled “Life must go on” http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/a/alter_bridge/life_must_go_on.html (accessed October 1st 2011)

[9] Flemming, Dean. Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Missions. Pg 75

[10] Flemming, Dean. Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Missions.  Pg. 76

[11] A brief description about what Sam Dunn did can be read here with the link of his video documentary which I have myself watched. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metal:_A_Headbanger’s_Journey (Date accessed: October 1st 2011)

[12] The following is taken from a blog post I have written concerning this which can be accessed here: https://achorusofehoes.wordpress.com/2010/02/03/how-heavy-metal-can-teach-us-devotion/ (Date accessed: October 1st 2011)

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5 thoughts on “The Gospel in the Key of Minor: Contextualizing the Gospel to a Cynical Generation

  1. scatteredpeicesofme says:

    Well written! I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially “The problem that I see is that the bulk of messages coming from churches now follow in some ways a-karma-like-infused principle to spirituality.”. Karma has no place in a Biblical-based theology and it really does lead to cynicism within the culture. Bravo.

      1. scatteredpeicesofme says:

        Well it doesn’t! The entire idea of karma actually goes against that which Jesus spoke about and modeled by His example. He created us and instituted free will. He promised us that life is not going to be easy, but rather, the complete opposite. He did say though that He will always be with us and, in essence, hold our souls in His hands.

        This buffet-line Christianity that has taken hold is really getting to me. Let’s take a bit of this and a bit of that while throwing the stuff we don’t like or feel comfortable with. Unfortunately, Christianity is starting to delve into that way of thinking more and more. My thoughts in a nutshell; Christianity is religion and religion is man’s attempt to reach God. Jesus established and opened the door for relationship that starts with God reaching out to us. Done and done.

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