In June of last year, a journalist for Science magazine wrote an article revealing new discoveries made by archeologists in Mexico City.1 Here, in one of the world’s biggest cities, was an ancient site of the Aztec people where human sacrifices were made. In a complex ritual, priests would cut out the still-beating heart of the captives and later remove their heads and place them on posts. Those heads were eventually put on display on the temple grounds. It is estimated that thousands of these skulls were displayed as an offering and act of worship to Tlaloc, the rain god, and Huitzilopochtli, the war god. In this practice, the Aztecs believed they could appease the gods and continue living in peace.
After posting this article to her Twitter, the journalist pushed back on those who referred to the practice as evil and horrific.2 Culturally and historically, Wade argued, these people wanted to be sacrificed and it is wrong for us to judge these practices through our Western lenses. In other words, because it was a normal part of their culture and religious practice, it was acceptable and we need not judge.
Good missionaries will always commit themselves to learning the culture of the people they are trying to reach with the gospel. This, of course, includes learning the language as culture and language are inseparable. But it also involves learning what gives them hope, what gives them fear, what brings them joy, what they value, what they don’t value… and on and on we could go. It is essential to be a student of the culture so that, after having identified differences between your culture and their culture, you can effectively proclaim the gospel in a way that makes sense. Essentially, we study the culture so we can contextualize, or the make the gospel clear, in the new culture.
The question becomes, are cultural differences neutral? In some cases, they certainly are. In the country where I serve, it is a much more “late culture.” That is to say, dinner is usually eaten between 10:00 P.M. and midnight and after dinner conversations can go on for hours afterwards. If we invited our friends in the USA over for dinner at 10:00 PM, I am confident their response would be a hard “no.” This is a cultural difference. But, is it good, bad, or just different?
Our natural tendency is to assume that our culture does everything right and so when we encounter differences in other cultures we think, “That’s just not right!” We refuse to change or adapt anything. Others will say, whatever another culture does, we must accept and do because it is “right” in that culture. In this case, we can end up changing everything, including the gospel message itself. How then, can faithful missionaries sort through cultural differences and determine what should be accepted, what should be rejected, and why?
Missiologist Paul Hiebert wrote on the need for critical contextualization.3 Hiebert calls on us to avoid the extreme of non-contextualization. This is simply ignoring cultural differences and ministering the same way you would in your home country. The other extreme must also be avoided. Over-contextualization is when everything that a culture does is accepted as good and right and is never scrutinized by biblical teaching.
Hiebert proposes a third way that he called critical contextualization. This process has three parts. First, we must study the culture without judgement seeking to discover, the rituals, traditions, and beliefs that drive the people to do what they do. Second, we must exegete the Scriptures to determine what they say on the subject. The goal in this second step is to identify a clear Christian teaching on whatever topic is being analyzed and, so far as possible, do so without cultural biases. The last step, Hiebert writes, is to critically compare cultural practices with the biblical teaching. Some cultural practices will be accepted because they are not unbiblical. As tired as we might be at midnight, the Bible does not reject late-night meals. On the other hand, some cultural practices must and will be rejected because they violate the teaching of Scripture. In some cases, these rejected practices and rituals will need to be replaced with new Christian ones or given Christian meanings.
The point is, we must avoid the extreme of rejecting every cultural difference and the extreme of accepting every cultural practice because, “that is what is right in this culture.” Rather, we must examine the culture, examine the Scriptures, and critically evaluate what can remain and what must be rejected by the church for the sake of the gospel. Sacrificing children and adults to the rain and war gods may have been the normal cultural practice of the Aztecs. Those who participated, both priests and captives, may have thought they were doing right, because their culture told them it was so. Yet, we can and must reject such practices, not because we come from a Western context, but because the Scriptures clearly teach against such practices. Our authority is not our own cultural worldview, but the unchanging truths of Scriptures.
Wherever we go in the world, whether in the midst of a tribe in the Amazon jungle that sacrifices children, the postmodern halls of Western Academia, or the Christianized suburbs of the Midwest, the need for critical contextualization remains. Even as conservative, evangelical Christians living in the United States, we cannot assume that our culture is not affecting our world view. As Hiebert writes, we must always see critical contextualization, “as an ongoing process in which the church must constantly engage itself, a process that can lead us to a better understanding of what the Lordship of Christ and the kingdom of God on earth are about.”
2The tweets have since been removed but were archived at: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17384339
3Hiebert, Paul G. 1987. “Critical Contextualization.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 11 (3): 104–12.