Monday, August 07, 2006

Eugene Peterson and Relevancy of the Message

Many Christians in America and the West are familiar with Eugene Peterson. He is a prolific author who writes with a pastor's heart. He is perhaps best known for not only his writing on Christian spirituality, but also for his Bible paraphrase The Message. I recently came across a March 2005 interview with him in Christianity Today magazine. The interview addresses concerns over shallowness in American Christianity, and includes the following question by CT and the response by Peterson:

What if we were to frame this not in terms of needs but relevance? Many Christians hope to speak to generation X or Y or postmoderns, or some subgroup, like cowboys or bikers—people for whom the typical church seems irrelevant.

When you start tailoring the gospel to the culture, whether it's a youth culture, a generation culture or any other kind of culture, you have taken the guts out of the gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not the kingdom of this world. It's a different kingdom.


I think relevance is a crock. I don't think people care a whole lot about what kind of music you have or how you shape the service. They want a place where God is taken seriously, where they're taken seriously, where there is no manipulation of their emotions or their consumer needs.

Why did we get captured by this advertising, publicity mindset? I think it's destroying our church.

As I read this portion of the interview I was struck by a sense of both agreement and disagreement with Peterson. Let me explain. I understand and share his concerns for the shallow approach to Christian living and spirituality by many Americans, no doubt a reflection of the shallow nature of many of our churches influenced by America's sense of rugged individualism and consumer culture. From this perspective in mind we certainly do not want to "gut" the gospel out of a desire for relevancy to a given subculture that ends up compromising the radical message of Jesus' Kingdom.

However, I disagree with Person in another sense. I wonder whether he has not confused all forms of communicating the gospel within culturally appropriate forms with compromise of the gospel. The biblical message and the history of Christian missions is filled with a number of examples of communicating the narrative of the missio Dei through and into the various cultures that the narrative encountered. While this may at times have been done in inappropriate ways as evidenced in the history of both Catholic and Protestant missions, missiologists have attempted to do so in a way that strives for a critical contextualization whch is faithful to both the essence of the gospel and cultural contexts. As Darrell Whiteman has noted in an article in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research 21:1 (January 1997), "Contextualization is not something we pursue motivated by an agenda of pragmatic efficiency. Rather, it must be followed because of our faithfulness to God.."

Cultures change regularly, and have done so in dramatic ways since Jesus walked in Palestine as graphically illustrated in the provocative "atomic Jesus" image that accompanies this blog post. And yet the ancient message of the gospel is important and relevant for people of the twenty-first century. But it must be communicated in ways that speak meaningfully and relevantly to differing cultural contexts. We seem to understand this in cross-cultural contexts overseas, especially through our support and endorsement of Bible translation projects. Peterson himself seems to understand this to some extent through his paraphrase of the Bible for contemporary Westerners. But communication of Jesus' message goes far beyond language and contemporary vernacular and embraces the totality of a culture or subculture's thought forms and lifeways, that includes but goes far beyond considerations of worship styles and music. Critical missional contextualization must not be confused with compromise, and is critical whether expressions of church take place in Africa or Los Angeles. If we forget these we have compromised the message.

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1 comment:

Sally said...

Interesting stuff- I too find myself in agreement/ disagreement with Peterson- but must say that I have found people are attracted by authenticity even if the expression might not resonate fully with them the fact that someones faith is real and visible seems to draw many