There is a postmodern theology. Although the term ‘postmodern’ might be overused, it still mean something. Modernity has passed. Not all elements of modernism has left us, just as not all of Medieval left Enlightenment Europe, or tribal/traditional culture left the developed Asian countries of today. Yet, postmodernity has arrived. Whenever the overarching, over-confident meta-narrative of the Enlightenment project is in doubt, modernism fades and postmodernity arises. It is in politics, society and arts. There is a certain ‘postmodern’ culture which defines its own meanings and symbols. The very reactions towards the failed Enlightenment confidence, coupled with a world dominated by free-market capitalism, allows an ultra utilitarianistic and narcissistic culture to emerge. This culture only sees individuals. Blinded to the need to submit to governments and authorities, partly due to market forces and self-interest, this generation of postmoderns are also pragmatic – ”meaning’ means very little to them apart from what meant to be of their own interest. There is no need for a universal truth or value.
How does this affect theology in the 21st century? It is certain that systematic theology will suffer (it has) as it is suited more for a modernist mindset than a postmodern one. Yet the more crucial question is how can we theologise if the modern category is faulty? This is not new. The discovery of various cultures worldwide and the missionary encounter with them have confirmed that the Western categories or methods of theologising is limited. Western Christianity, it was discovered, was modernist, especially when compared to the various contextual theologies in the Third World.
Mission theology, informed by the Liberation Theology and other contextual theologies, should take prominent role in theologising in the 21st century. If the modern project was Western, postmoderns represent a multitude of cultures and peoples. If theology was at a time (from Enlightenment to the 20th century), a Western and systematic exercise, today it shall be a ‘postmodern’ exercise for Global Christianity. Thus, mission theologians equipped with the skills of contextualisation and training in classical theology, history, biblical studies and practical ministries, must set the pace for this age. To the postmodern, a proper exegesis of a biblical text means very little unless it means something to him or her. An all encompassing, structural, and theoretical, and authoritative tone suited to the big meta-narrative claim has given way to the cry for meaning of the particulars and individuals. It will take a missionary of the 21st century whom can decipher cultures to communicate with them. Just as the residues of modernity still linger around, and their values not to be undermined, a postmodern way of doing theology does not deny the classical and modern ways of doing theology. Yet it takes the bull by its horns by asking relevant questions about this age, while reinventing and evolving itself to be relevant to the present era.
p.s. There is no denial of a core – or a constant in context of Christianity. Just how this core can be discovered and discerned is a continuous debate. Suggested readings:
I have posted some pieces about inculturation earlier and the posts have been receiving on average 3 views per day ever since. I am currently writing a paper on ‘redefining inculturation’, attempting to propose a more comprehensive definition for inculturation. My previous posts were mainly a combination of thoughts and theology from the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Churches. They were basically not critical work and has very little academic value.
In my present research, I have managed to review a whole range of definitions of inculturation and the ways in which those definitions have come into being. All that I would like to say here is this: inculturation is a huge subject.
Currently I am still working on the definition of ‘culture’ – that is after months of studies.
Tom Wirght talks about the gospel.
I have doing some research on inculturation. One of the main confusions people have – be they Roman Catholics or Protestants – is whether the ‘gospel’ interacts with ‘culture’ or actually the church, the Christian faith or Christ Himself does so.
Of course I have my own conclusion after some massive revamp of my own previous dissertation. Anyway, one of the key issues in the study is the definition of ‘gospel’. So after listening to N.T. Wirght’s short definition of the gospel, do you think that the gospel interacts and dialogues with culture(s)?
Dr. Howard Culbertson posted the following in his website:
Here are 14 lessons which John Slack learned in his church growth research with congregations of the Southern Baptist Convention. This is an example of what can be learned from demographics, spreadsheets, surveys, interviews, and historical studies by analyzing the information secured from various sources.
- New units grow faster than established churches.
- Aging within a church almost inevitably ushers in a “come-oriented” ministry in contrast to a “go-centered” ministry.
- Older churches do not start as many new churches as do younger churches.
- Churches and church planting drift upward on the economic scale.
- The longer a church is in a community, the less like that community the church becomes.
- Existing, established churches have normal plateau and ministry limits.
- Only as a church effectively expands its discipleship base will it sustain infinitely reproducible church growth and church planting.
- More baptisms and greater membership growth occurs in zones or areas that are farther from the existing church and its come-oriented activities.
- The difference between so-called “responsive” and “non-responsive” peoples is not in the average number of baptisms per church but in the number of new units — churches — that are started.
- Churches in resistant cultures tend to begin as or soon become cosmopolitan rather than community. In resistant cultures, community churches have far greater influence on the culture than do cosmopolitan churches.
- As beginning models of church planting, training, and materials are repeated and age, they become hallowed — and almost “unchangeable” — patterns even when and if they are no longer relevant.
- If a lost person or people group is illiterate and poor, the chance of their being evangelized decreases proportionately to the heights of their illiteracy and the depths of their poverty.
- Training in most theological programs has become more academic than functional.
- Bible teaching, including the Sunday School and other forms of discipleship, to be effective, must be done in the context of evangelism.
Slack, James B. (1998). “Strategies for Church Planting.” Missiology. Edited by John Mark Terry, Ebbie Smith and Justin Anderson. Nashville, TN.: Broadman and Holman Publishers.
I hope he doesn’t mind me reposting it here. I discovered the list two years ago when I did a research and still find it intriguing. Now if you are a student of missiology – try reading the list with contextualisation or inculturation in mind and you will discover something interesting.
I cannot help but share this. Also do note how many times Wright refers to some sort of contextualisation in this video:
There is a post at the Read the Spirit site entitled ‘Rediscover John XXIII, a Pope who stunned the world!‘ Many have thought that the new pope, Francis I, brings a refreshing aura with him into the office. So it would be natural for one to look back curiously for past popes with similar ‘aura of change’. John XXIII was one of them. He was the pope whom brought the Roman Catholic Church and the world a revolutionary change through the initiative of Vatican II.
Excerpt from the above post:
MORE THAN 1 BILLION CATHOLICSaround the world are wondering: Can a new pope revive our deeply troubled Church? Millions of those Catholics also wonder: Is it possible that another pope could “throw open the windows of the Church”? That’s a reference to Pope John XXIII, the pope who stunned the world by opening the Second Vatican Council in 1962—the historic global gathering of Catholic leaders that finally set the Mass in common languages, moved altars forward to make parishioners feel that they were a part of the Mass, changed countless other church structures and, most importantly, ushered in the modern era of interfaith relations.
Also, a book on John XXIII is also introduced in the post. The Good Pope: The Making of a Saint and the Remaking of the Church–The Story of John XXIII and Vatican II (Kindle version) costs only $3.99.
Students of mission studies will no doubt remember documents which are the results of the Council. For example, Lumen Gentium and Ad Gentes. Through these documents and other efforts, the council set the pace for inculturation of worship to happen in the global church and contextualisation to take place for evangelisation.
And, in his own words,
In these days, which mark the beginning of this Second Vatican Council, it is more obvious than ever before that the Lord’s truth is indeed eternal. Human ideologies change. Successive generations give rise to varying errors, and these often vanish as quickly as they came, like mist before the sun. The Church has always opposed these errors, and often condemned them with the utmost severity. Today, however, Christ’s Bride prefers the balm of mercy to the arm of severity. She believes that, present needs are best served by explaining more fully the purport of her doctrines, rather than by publishing condemnations. Pope John XXIII: Opening Speech at the Council, October 11, 1962
Engaging yet not compromising. A mission-minded pope indeed.
From my MA Dissertation:
Inculturation is centred on culture. This marks the primary difference between inculturation and contextualisation. Most Protestants consider inculturation as a subset of contextualisation. Bosch for example, placed inculturation under contextualisation together with liberation theology; with inculturation the primary concern is the relationship between faith and culture, while liberation theology includes the larger context, namely the socio-political situation. So although there remains close ties between culture and the socio-political context, when inculturation is in question, the focus should always be ‘culture’.
Cultural Anthropology is now a necessity for mission studies. Surely no student of inculturation would want to miss out course material on cultural anthropology, especially if is in good quality and produced by a top university. The good news is MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has just a course like this. Under its Open Courseware, MIT has since make the undergraduate (and some graduate) level Anthropology Courses available online. The emphasis of some of these courses are on Cultural Anthropology. The Introduction to Anthropology, for example, gives students a good basic grasp of Anthropology from the cultural perspectives.
Amongst the courses made available are Anthropological Theory, Seminar in Ethnography and Fieldwork, Myth, Ritual, and Symbolism, Identity and Difference, Gender, Sexuality, and Society, Ethnic and National Identity, Rethinking the Family, Sex, and Gender, Power: Interpersonal, Organizational and Global Dimensions, Culture, Embodiment and the Senses, Food and Culture, Anthropology Through Speculative Fiction, Marketing, Microchips and McDonalds: Debating Globalization, Documenting Culture, Technology and Culture, Energy Decisions, Markets, and Policies, Cross-Cultural Investigations: Technology and Development, Social Theory and Analysis (Graduate level), and The Anthropology of Cybercultures (Graduate level).
The course syllabus, structure/calendar, reading list, lecture notes, assignments, and study materials are all free for download online.
By the way, there are of course resources which deals with the relationship between missiology and anthropology. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries by Hiebert is one of them.
I suppose we all heard of ‘Harlem Shake’. Now that some Christians are doing it, people start to wonder if it is wrong for Christians to follow suit. They are especially concerned with the fact that Christians seem to copy the meme without thinking much about the origin of the dance and why they are doing it. Shellnutt points out that this a phenomenon called ‘the Commodification of Culture’:
The “Harlem Shake,” like most memes, has become a commodity, so easily replicated that we use it for our own ends and move on. We happily hijack the setup, then post our versions on YouTube for views, laughs, and “relevancy.” We have no real engagement with the phenomenon outside of copying and clicking.
This commodification of culture—an impulse discussed by Vincent Miller in his book Consuming Religion—allows us to ignore the context where things originally gained meaning. As we dance the “Harlem Shake,” we don’t need to know how to do the hip-hop dance move of the same name. We don’t need to know anything about Baauer, the musician who created this song-heard-round-the-Internet. We don’t need to understand this underground genre of music called “trap.” We don’t even need to think about the lyrics of the short song, which proclaim “Con los terroristas!” (With the terrorists!) through the skittish beats.
I would add, that the ‘Commodification of Culture’ is the hallmark of postmodernity. If there is any (possible) definition of postmodern culture, ‘Commodification of Culture’ has to be a part of it. I have posted earlier on Arbuckle’s definition of postmodern culture:
…a pattern of meanings encased in a network of symbols, myths, narratives and rituals, created by individuals and subdivisions, as they struggle to respond to the competitive pressures of power and limited resources in a rapidly globalizing and fragmented world, and instructing its adherents about what is considered to be the correct way to feel, think and behave.
Imagine in a perfectly ‘modern’ world, where everything needs to be done with a reason, which in turn is nested within a system of beliefs. People will think twice before mimicking the act. Everything must go through the scrutiny of reasoning and strict rationalisation. Questions like, ‘Why should I do it?’ ‘What is it?’ ‘How to do it properly?’ must be answered and the whole logic must adhere to the system of beliefs (meta narrative) before the idea was allowed to be translated into action.
However, that age has passed. Now people pick and choose any cultural elements which make sense to them and incorporate them into their lives and actions. One of the postmodern characteristics is the tendency to ask ‘what use is it?’ instead of ‘what is it?’ or ‘why is it so?’. For this reason, as long as ‘Harlem Shake’ serves a certain needs – be it the need to be relevant or the need to have fun, people will embrace it without much consideration.
Thus, Shellnutt calls for Christian to be careful:
Regardless of what the ramifications are for this particular song, Christians—whose faith relies on the context of its own teachings and symbols—generally need to take interest in where cultural phenomena come from and what they mean.
The same impulse that has us thoughtlessly clicking and sharing viral videos trains us to disconnect the thing in front of us with the story behind it. Our lives as Christians are all about the story of the Gospel, and we don’t want our traditions distanced from that story…by us or anyone else.
I think she brings out a very important point – that there is now a danger of Christians unknowingly detaching their acts with the Gospel story. If we consider why some of the Christians are following this trend, we might find that most of them will tell us that they ‘didn’t think too much’, or even respond by asking, ‘wasn’t it fun?’ They just do it because they are postmoderns – not that they know it. In a modern world everything that we do is linked to a set of belief or meta-narrative. In the postmodern world we mix what we like to do and form our own stories. That means, although they are Christians, they are from ‘planet postmodern’. They are susceptible to distancing their acts from the Gospel story, and subsequently having the tendency to form their own story. One of my earlier post explored this issue, which manifests itself in an increase of eclectic taste for spirituality.
So should Christians do the ‘Harlem Shake’? I think that’s a wrong question to ask and fall short of tackling the heart of the matter. Instead, we should be asking, ‘how do we help Christians today to hold on to the Gospel story, since they are, as Newbigin put it, the hermeneutic of the Gospel?’ Judging the phenomenon is pointless because the interpretation of the phenomenon has been made difficult amidst the cultural chaos of the day. In the past people are settled within a certain cultural tradition. The world as we knew it was a cultural mosaic. Today we are increasingly facing a force which tends to take various cultural elements of others to form a new self-made subculture, crossing geographical and traditional cultural boundaries. Meanwhile, the under-threat traditional cultures are reacting against the tide, resulting in a cultural landscape which is often hostile but certainly fluid, fragmented and mixed. As a result we are now living in a cultural kaleidoscope. So it is hard to pin a phenomenon down and properly classify it today, let alone criticise it.
Furthermore, soon there will be another meme around the corner – will people go on examining every little bit of its origin before they adopt it? The postmodern Christians will not care nor they have the aptitude to do so. It is against their nature. They will just go for it. So instead of criticising them or the phenomena, should we not consider how to engage them and help them to live for Christ even under such influence? The real danger, as Shellnutt points out, is not with the phenomena nor is with the threat of the present cultural norm which has the subtlety to detach our acts from our faith. It is with Christians leaders and thinkers who disregard the need to contextulise their approach of teaching or ways to engage with the postmodern generation, thinking that the modernist approach would make sense to the postmoderns. Perhaps we should refer to Paul’s Areopagus experience, where he expertly contextualise his approach as he persuaded the pluralistic Athenians, while holding on to the Gospel story. Some may listen while others not, but contextualisation is no more an option for Christian mission in today’s world.
 Arbuckle, G.A. (2010) Culture, Inculturation, and Theologians: A Postmodern Critique (Liturgical Press), 1-16, 17; ritual – the ‘stylized or repetitive symbolic use of bodily movement and gesture within a social context, to express and articulate meaning’, Arbuckle, G.A. (1990) Earthing the Gospel: An Inculturation Handbook for the Pastoral Worker (London: Geofrey Chapman), 96, citing Bocock, R. (1974) Ritual in Industrial Society: A Sociological Analysis of Ritualism in Modern England (London: George Allen & Unwin), 35-59.