Monday, March 12, 2007

Contextualization and Syncretism: From Caution to Bogeyman

For a while now I have appreciated and benefitted from the work of missiologist Gailyn Van Rheenen. He wrote the foreword to our book, Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel Academic & Professional, 2004), and he writes informative newsletters called "Monthly Missiological Reflections." The current issue is devoted to a discussion of contextualization and syncretism, wherein Van Rheenen not only discusses this issue but also mentions a recent book on the topic published as a result of collecting papers presented at a national conference for the Evangelical Missiological Society. The book is titled Contextualization and Syncretism: Navigating Cultural Currents (William Carey Library, 2006).

I just ordered the book so I cannot comment on it, but as I read Dr. Van Rheenen's newsletter a few thoughts struck me.

First, the topic was a reminder that contextualization and syncretism are perennial issues for missions and represent "hot topics," not only in missions, but also in other venues of intercultural studies as well, as the blogosophere flap over the discussion of cultures and their festivals of death at Cornerstone Festival demonstrated last year. See the following "Apostasy Alert" for an example of some of the reactions. (As a side note, I will be giving presentations on this topic at the Fest this year as something of a response to this issue.)

Second, I noted that Van Rheenen concluded his discussion of these topics by drawing upon his foreword to our book on new religions and cited the case studies of contextualization to new religions that were included. He did so with apparent approval and yet raised a caution over the need for the contributors to consider how such approaches might lead to syncretism in the future. This caution was a reminder that this topic needs to be addressed carefully by those applying contextualization models to new religions in the West, and perhaps we can address it at a major conference at Trinity for our Lausanne issue group.

Third, I found it interesting that among conservative evangelicals we have people offering suggestions from different ends of the spectrum, from Van Rheenen's warnings about contextualization and syncretism to Terry Muck's comments in Interpretation journal that evangelicals have not gone far enough in contextualization models among the world religions.

Fourth, while I appreciate the need for caution in regards to contextualization and syncretism, especially in my own work with new religions, in my view evangelicals have allowed this to become the a theological bogeyman that often prohibits evangelicals from either going far enough in contextualization as Muck suggests, or in the case of the new religions, failing to consider and attempt such approaches. Let's be careful as we develop our theology and praxis, but let's not become paralyzed in the process.


Matt Stone said...

It's a sensitive issue. I was say we need to be wary of sloppy contextualization precisely because it constrains us from pushing the boundaries of contextualization far enough. In so far as critique sharpens us, I welcome it. But boogymen only blunt the church's missional edge.

Ross Anderson said...

It's always easier to see someone else's syncretism than one's own. A case in point: the inability of American mainstream evangelicalism to mount any kind of sustained prophetic response to consumerism and the idolatries of affluence.

John W. Morehead said...

Thanks for this reminder, Ross. You're right, particularly among American evangelicals. To Van Rheenen's credit, in his newsletter on this topic he does note an example of syncretism an an avetage American congregational approach to ministry. I was reminded of the need to check our interpretive grids on such things with the recent review of William Dyrness's "How Do Americans Hear the Gospel?" It was a reminder that we interpret the gospel and "do church" and missions with American assumptions, and many times these assumptions include syncretism that we can't even see. So while we are correct to exercise caution in syncretism abroad and at home, let us not forget that it takes place not only in missiological contexts, but ecclesiological ones as well.

John A. Dunne said...

Contextualization can be a tough thing. Don Richardson obviously did an amazing job of relating to the Sawi in his book "Peace Child," but sometimes it seems that the focus becomes the context rather then the message. Obviously, there is a level of contextualization that goes into most interactions with people of other cultures and religions. I'm curious about your views on contextualization and Mormonism. I've read "I love Mormons" and some of Shawn McCraney's book, "Book again Mormon," so I know there are varying philosophies on this issue. In your view, where does contexualization need to applied the most to ministry in Utah?

John W. Morehead said...

Great question, John, and one that is deep and complex, and difficult to do justice to in a brief reply. I would refer you to the wealth of literature on contextualization in missiology and its practice in mission history (not to mention biblical examples of contextualization). It is a sound practice that has biblical warrant and precedent, as well as its practice in subsequent Christian history. It can cross the line into syncretism, and we need to be wary of this, but I agree with Terry Muck of Asbury that our problem is not too much contextualization but rather that we have not gone far enough, particulary with the new religions. See our book Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel, 2004) for discussion of materials related to this.

As to Mormonism, I would say that a handful of congregations and individuals in Utah have taken initial steps in contextualization, but these are largely passive attempts that attempt to create a safe environment for dissatisfied Mormons and which present the gospel in ways friendly to LDS culture. We have yet to move beyond this in proactive contextualization, such as the creation of forms of community and worship that build on the local ward, not to mention the exploration of possible movements inside LDS culture much as has been done with Muslim Background Believers and contextualization in Islamic countries.