Monday, June 30, 2008

Harold Taylor on Cross-Cultural Contextualization

Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit several areas in Australia. I was intrigued by the work that Christian colleagues were doing in engaging the holistic milieu or New Spirituality. One of the people I was fortunate to spend time with was Harold Taylor, a former missionary to Papua New Guinea who spends time applying his experience and insights as a missionary to his work with the Community of Hope in Melbourne. Harold was very helpful during my trip in that he not only shared the work of Community of Hope, but also introduced me to Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch. He later became a contributor to Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel Academic, 2004) where he wrote a chapter on the process of contextualization in the history of Christian missions.

Harold recently drew from the depth of his experiences and wisdom to share his responses to several questions of mine.

Morehead's Musings: Harold, can you share a little about your background?

Harold Taylor: I am a retired Uniting Church minister(Uniting Church is combination of Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches-formed in 1977). I was born into a working class family in 1932, in the Western Suburbs Melbourne( lower social status). I worked in Railways after leaving school and was drafted for Military national service in the early l950’s. I came to faith during time in army. Later, I became part of the Methodist Church, and trained for Methodist ministry in the mid-1950’s. I was posted to Papua New Guinea as a missionary with Methodist Overseas Missions in the 160 and served there in various situations, including 10 years in a newly formed theological college. I returned Australia in 1977, and was appointed as Lecturer at the Bible College of Victoria, responsible for missiology and pastoral care. I retired in 1996 for health reasons. From l996 to 2006 I directed the Community of Hope -- a ministry working among people searching for meaning in alternative spiritual paths, apart from the church, including New Age and other alternatives in the spiritual healing smorgasbord. I am married to Barbara and I have four children and eight grand children.

Morehead's Musings: How did a former missionary to PNG get involved in missions at Mind*Body*Spirit festivals?

Harold Taylor: Working in cross-cultural situations made me aware of the universal search for meaning in peoples lives. In PNG this was expressed through the cultural lens of a spiritual world view, where life was strongly influenced (often dominated) by a belief in spiritual powers affecting all aspects of daily life. The missionary challenge was to understand and respond to this very different world view. An important aspect in this was to understand the cultural situation and assumptions of the people, and then be able to relate the gospel in a meaningful way to their situation -- not to mine! This required a level of identification , involving language learning and forging a lifestyle which built bridges to different understandings and expressions of life and spirituality.

On returning to Australia, I became aware of the changing Australian society, including the decline of the church and the growth of many alternative spiritual paths and their rapid expansion from 1960’s onward..One of the popular expressions of this was through the so-called New Age-Mind*Body*Spirit festivals. I began to be involved in this area of ministry when there were few if any Christian groups functioning in this area. There was lots of “apologetic” material about the New Age, but few actually seem inclined to get involved in the popular "market place” level where people were searching.

In the Community of Hope we worked on a developmental model-outlined in ENRM. We revised this, and produced our own models which operates with the acronym. GLOBAL and PLEASE:

G. go
L. listen and learn the new age culture, etc. by
O. observing..meanings, colours, actions, presentations, world view etc,.
B. being ready to ask others as to meanings, involvement etc. and being ready to share your own spiritual journeys.
A. awareness of other cultural/spiritual emphases
L. love, based on knowledge and understanding and involvement in other situations following the pattern of Ramon Lull (see ENRM p. 55-56).


P. presence - living , being present among new age devotees/searchers in markets, etc.
L. listen and learn in order to understand..involving questions and sharing ideas
E. explain your own cultural understanding and spiritual experiences
A. awareness of different cultural and spiritual attitudes and understanding
S. service,where and if applicable
E. expressing gospel in relevant terms at the right time/place

Morehead's Musings: Why do you believe that cross-cultural missions provides a helpful contribution to the field of new religions? How does a missions model make a unique contribution to how evangelicals understand and respond to them that has not been addressed in popular apologetic approaches?

Harold Taylor: I believe that cultural missions do provide a helpful contribution in any approach to “new religions," etc. The above framework provided a basis for our approach in PNG. It involved leaving your own cultural situation and living, working, thinking in another cultural paradigm, where listening and learning and relating to others is just as, or even more important, than the theological knowledge and spiritual experience you wish to impart. This is different from the usual evangelical apologetic, which often seems to proceed on a doctrinal basis, with the task of showing the truth of the biblical revelation and comparing it to the world view and “doctrines/beliefs” of the “target” group. It seemed to me that such apologetic efforts were often conducted “at a distance," whereas the true missionary approach involves identification, and a deliberate attempt to contextualise the gospel, involving both declaring the truth( doctrinal) and also relating to others (identification).

Morehead's Musings: In ENRM, you contributed a chapter that looked at examples of contextualisation in the history of Christian missions. Can you define what contextualisation means in missions and missiology?

Harold Taylor: As stated ENRM (p. 44-45). Gilliland suggests that the goal of contextualization is its best definition. There are many definitions available, but each definition involves relating the scriptural revelation to each human cultural context, to discover what God is saying to every particular group of people. A truly contextualized gospel and church is one where those receiving the gospel and becoming part of the church , feel “at home,” i.e. it “fits” who I am and where I am, and addresses meaningfully my situation of hope, fears, and daily living.

Morehead's Musings: I was struck in a seminary course on world religions and the exegesis of cultures that there are certain worldview roots, if you will, or very basic and different ways of seeing the world, whether that of ethical monotheism; those that emphasize samsara,karma, and dharma; and those that emphasize the Tao, the yin/yang, ancestors, and divination. Obviously cross cultural translation and communication of the christian message involves far more than language but also moving into the areas of these worldviews? Is it necessary for someone to adopt a western worldview in order to embrace Christianity, or how might we have our greatest contextualisation challenges ahead of us in terms of translation in these worldviews?

Harold Taylor: I do not think it is necessary for someone to adopt a western worldview in order to embrace Christianity. In fact to the extent that others become “westernized” in their understanding and practice, is often the reason why they find it difficult to express the gospel in their own cultural thought forms and practices.

It may be helpful to understand a western worldview, in order to understand how the church has developed in the western world, but often this is equated with being truly Christian. This is one of the greatest challenges -- how to express the good news of Jesus in ways which relate meaningfully to another cultural situation, rather than using western thought forms, language, and cultural and church assumptions.

This “westernizing’” of mission is one of the greatest challenges facing the church today, and has affected the development of missionary churches. Much theological education and learning remains embedded in western patterns, and this dependence on the West, has produced a kind of “cultural captivity”, which has to be replaced by a truly indigenous contextual theology and theological education patterns.

Morehead's Musings: Is Western Christianity used to thinking in terms of cross cultural contextualisation in the West, and particularly where the new religions are concerned? Why or why not?

Harold Taylor: My impression is that the western church does not give much credence to cross-cultural communication in the West, although is changing over the last three decades. "New religions” and “spiritualities” are still approached mainly on a “heresy-doctrinal’ basis, where the emphasis is on truth and error. Whilst this is an essential aspect of sharing the gospel, this approach may not involve any identification with the “other”, whereas this is an essential ingredient of any true contextualization.

Morehead's Musings: What types of cultural assumptions might we have that impact our understanding of the gospel and contextualisation?

Harold Taylor: There are many. Some would be:

Truth as statement/doctrine, with little emphasis on relationships and identification.

The western way is the best way, and is therefore needed by others, and we have the task of sharing that with others (and often imposing it on others).

Our church structures and practices are the best way to communicate the gospel.

Western values are kingdom values, and therefore to be accepted as the “right” way, whereas they are often in conflict with truly biblical values and assumptions.

Morehead's Musings: Syncretism is a negative term in theology and missiology. Can you define that for us?

Harold Taylor: Syncretism is the mixing together of various world views and truth statements -- a fruit salad mix -- so that the resulting mix is different from the various ingredients. It is often used negatively because it suggests a dilution or contamination of the truth.

Morehead's Musings: I have the impression that conservative evangelicalism and other forms of Protestantism seem to be getting more conservative in missions and missiology over fears of syncretism. Can you speak to how we might have balance in working towards contextualisation and avoiding syncretism but not allowing fears to stop our creative missional experimentation?

Harold Taylor: I believe it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to avoid syncretism altogether, and that we are much too afraid of this happening. The challenge is to express the good news of Jesus in ways which are faithful to scripture and relevant to each cultural situation. This always involves the risk of syncretism, and there must be a constant awareness of this possibility, but this should not stop attempts to truly “indigenize” the good news. Often we think that our understanding and presentation of the gospel is free from any syncretism, and that this is a problem for “the other”. However it is easy to delude ourselves into thinking that syncretism is only problem in “non- or becoming Christian”” situations. I would maintain that the church in North America and Australia is heavily syncretised, because we have assumed that western cultural values are truly Christian, whereas the truth is that there are many areas in the western church where the gospel has been diluted and weakened and obscured because of the assumptions (often unspoken) that western cultural is somehow basically Christian in orientation.

There is always the risk of syncretism( as in both Old and New Testaments), and often this prevents any new missional experimentation, but that risk has to be taken if the gospel is to be expressed and heard in culturally meaningful ways. I think syncretism is overcome by good biblical teaching. a long and arduous but necessary task.

Morehead's Musings: Harold, thank you again for sharing some of your thoughts. I know you feel that each question is worthy of several pages if not books of discussion, but I hope that your thoughts on these issues will help stimulate careful reflection.

1 comment:

John Henry said...

Thank you so much for posting this interview. I really like what Harold had to say about the Westerner's assumption that the syncretism is happening on the "other" end when Western Christianity already has its own syncretism. I see bringing a Western Christianity as cutting off the chances of real future growth in the indigenous church.