Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Afterthoughts on Cornerstone Festival 2007

I just returned from another great experience at Cornerstone Festival. I was pretty busy this year, presenting two different workshop series, leading a film discusion on a fantasy role playing game (see my thoughts on this at TheoFantastique), participating in a panel discussion on emerging church, and facilitating a discussion on cross-cultural communication and Wicca. In addition, I thoroughly enjoyed many of the presentations in the Imaginarium that touch on areas related to pop culture.

One of my seminar series was a popularization of my graduate thesis on Burning Man Festival. Thankfully the attendees were willing to consider a fresh understanding of this festival and intentional community, and the ramifications for Christian reflection.

The other series I presented was on the issues of cross-cultural missions and syncretism. This series had its genesis in the unfortunate controversy that resulted from my presentations and other activities in Imaginarium in 2006 where discussion of Halloween and the Mexican Dia de los Muertos or Mexican Day of the Day took place. Some of the more fundamentalist and reactionary brethren were present in stealth mode, and they misunderstood what was presented. After the festival they proceeded to share their "expertise" on the topics with accompanying Bible proof-texting on their blogs. As a result, Cornerstone thought the resulting questions of cross-cultural understanding, missions, and syncretism might flow naturally from such considerations.

My series related to these issues was fairly straight forward. The first session introduced the issues by defining the positive concept (in missions and missiology) of "contextualization" or the process of translating the gospel from one culture to another by framing it in a differing cultural context, as well as the negative concept (in theology and missiology) "syncretism" or the inappropriate blending of Christianity with aspects of indigeneous religion. After consideration of definitions I pointed out that while we are used to thinking about such issues in overseas missions contexts, this represents largely foreign thinking in America and the West where a Christendom mindset and a rather homogeneous concept of America that is supposedly familiar with the gospel and Christianity still holds sway.

The second session built on the first by nothing that contextualization was a well accepted concept in missions, and that it is exemplified in the Bible where God is the supreme contextualizer. I then shared several examples of missional contextualization, including Matteo Ricci among Confucianists, Karl Ludvig Reichelt among Taoists and Buddhists, various contextualization efforts among Muslims, and the work of my colleagues in Australia in contextualization at Mind Body Spirit festivals. I argued that we need to be drawing upon such examples in the creative exploration of contextualization in increasing frequency in Western churches.

The third and final session summarized the preceding seminars and the concluded with a series of basic principles that I hoped attendees would remember. One of the most important noted that while evangelical missions and missiology appears to be moving more in the direction of conservatism in relation to contextualization out of concern or fears over syncretism, in my view the real challenge is our own fears over mistakes (or potential mistakes) in this area. While we are often quick to point the finger at alleged syncretism overseas, we ignore syncretism in our churches in an Americanized Christianity, and this often prevents us from being risk takers in developing new contextualization models and in experimentation. In my view the problem is not that we have gone too far, but rather, I agree with thinkers like Terry Muck at Asbury who argue that we have not gone far enough in contextualization overseas and especially not in the West. I also called for the application of artistry and imagination to this process where "theo-" and "missio-imagineers" can be encouraged to experiment creatively with these processes.

There was nothing controversial in my seminar series this year, and nothing that should have pushed fundamentalist buttons in Imaginarium either, so perhaps the blogosphere will not reflect the alarmist postings of those supposedly sounding the warnings of discernment. But then again, last year wasn't controversial either, nevertheless, the fear mongers and reactionaries among us felt as if they had plenty of fodder.

I appreciate and value Cornerstone Festival as a place where I can explore my own reflections, I can challenge other Christians to expand their thinking, and I can benefit from the creative thinking of other speakers, not to mention the fine people who put Cornerstone Festival on for us all to enjoy.

I can't wait to see what next year holds.


John Divito said...


Do you know if Cornerstone will make your seminars, especially your series on the issues of cross-cultural missions and syncretism, available in MP3 or other audio formats? I'd like to hear your reflection on these issues in more depth.

John W. Morehead said...

John, thanks for your thoughts. Unfortunately, Cornerstone does not record these sessions. Thus, they have a transient quality, and while great things are discussed and reflected on they continue on only in the memories of the speakers, the attendees, and the outlines of the presenters themselves. I only have outlines for my presentations which are very fragementary but would be happy to email them at your request (and anyone else's).

Perhaps we could suggest to Cornerstone leadership that summary papers be submitted by the speakers with their acceptance of an appearance at the Festival and these could be posted on the Festival website to provide a record of such things and a means of furthering reflection by others.

Lainie Petersen said...

Summary papers would be great, as would a recommended bibliography.

Again, great presentations this year, John. Thank you!

Steve Hayes said...

Thanks very much for the report -- I wish I could have been there.

Perhaps you could post it (or a summary with a pointer) in the Christianity and society discussion forum.

Steve Hayes said...

Concerning Burning Man, have you seen this?


John W. Morehead said...

I had not seen this, Steve. Thanks for making me aware of it. I knew of the international impact and participation of people in Burning Man but did not know of this artistic influence in South Africa.