Whatever else ‘Evangelical’ means today it is at least an effort to keep things simple, to share the gospel with Jesus front and centre. And although the Anabaptist movement seems at times to enjoy a self-sustained identity crisis, we are nonetheless consistently fond of the fact that we ‘do our theology on the run.’ There are of course great strengths to both of these characteristics. But combined they tend to mean our gospel proclamation can lack a basic self-awareness. When it comes to talking about Jesus - to use a phrase common in my neck of the woods – we like to jus get ‘er done. This is a perfectly appropriate mode of action for gathering hay before a storm or firewood in late Fall. But for communicating the gospel across cultural differences, it has not served us well.
In order for me to speak responsibly to a person from a different culture I need to know three things thoroughly: My culture, the other culture and the message I want to convey. Evangelicals typically put the order the other way round and run out of zeal halfway through. We are keen on knowing our message, keen to appear keen on knowing other cultures, and mostly oblivious to whatever value might come from knowing our own. The result is that we have much to say, very little idea how it sounds and no idea when to stop speaking. In other words, we are terrible listeners.
I live in traditional Stl’atl’imx territory and there is a diagnosis here for this kind of problem: Wa7 ícwa7 st’éna7, t’síla tsóqwaoz – “You have no ears, like a fish.” The body of Christ has made its way across cultural lines in my home and native land with ears more or less resembling the empty spaces on the sides of a trout’s head.
The first step toward better attentiveness is a simple confession: Everything you and I say is tangled-up with our culture. There is a constantly spinning loop between our view of the world and the impression that world is having back on us as we view it. And we can no sooner extract ourselves from this loop than inspect the backs of our own eyeballs. Our culture is where we are, how we’re there, what we make of it and what it makes of us. Sounds a bit creepy, putting it that way. But it needn’t be. All creatures are made who and what they are by their particular time and place – and humans have simply given this aspect of our createdness a name, we call it our ‘culture.’
Whether it was a thick-skinned Viking beached on the shores of Newfoundland or a lost Italian looking for India, our first impressions on this land established a posture and pace we have not significantly adjusted. Frantic self-preservation and gold-struck busyness have characterized the so-called ‘dominant’ culture here ever since.
In political terms our movement across this continent has been one of the most haphazard and self-absorbed examples of colonialism in the history of human expansion. In social terms we have isolated individuals from and against one another as if Darwin were a prophet. Economically, we have institutionalized greed and treated this land like an impossibly infinite resource at our disposal. And epistemologically we have applied our consumerist lust to certainty, as if knowledge itself were a frontier-land available for immediate possession.
Is this our culture? Is this the loop in and from which we view others and the world around us? We could put a more positive spin on it: The freedom within an open-market economy, the respect and order of a liberal democracy, the technologies of modern science, all have many good things to offer. But is this the Christian calling? Should we be spinning our loops for the sake of attracting people to Christ? Can’t we just let Jesus stand, front and centre, without all our cultural baggage?
As it turns out, Jesus only complicates things further. Once he’s part of the picture there’s not just the loop between me and my culture, there’s also the one between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit somehow woven in there too.
Yes, I am for better or worse a product of my culture. But with Jesus I am also, for better, a product of God’s grace. And it’s sharing that latter bit – the invading love of God in our lives – that is our primal objective. But here’s the problem: The two loops are inseparable. I am a creature so I can no sooner remove myself from my time and place than I can usurp the throne of the Creator himself. But I am also a new creation, I am ‘already and not yet’ caught up into something we might call a redeemed culture: The Spirit-filled life of Christ.
At this point we could get so twisted in our overlapping loops that far from jus gettin’ ‘er done, we might never even get started. But Jesus doesn’t just complicate things and leave us to it. He is also the way through the tangle and into some new possibilities for how to tell the story about him.
Jesus is both a first-century Palestinian Jew and also the One in whom all cultures hold together. He is, like the rest of us, a creature of his place in history. But unlike anyone else, he is also the Creator of history itself. There is a paradox in that, but that’s what it takes to describe the mystery that is the life of Christ. It is a fertile paradox, and it corresponds to our challenge about speaking the gospel across cultures.
As followers of Jesus we are stewards of a message that is irremediably twisted by our own stories – but it is a message that is also the very plotline of creation. There are two poles to this, and as with most of the tensions within our faith, there will always be pressures toward resolution in favour of one over the other. On the one hand are those who would leave Jesus in his original culture and thereby have little to offer anyone else’s. On the other are those who would idealize Jesus, cut him loose from his creaturely loop, and the result is the smothering both of his humanity and ours. What we need is a way of holding the two together; both the fact that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever and the fact that we, to the glory of God, are not.
My home church is small, plain and willing to admit that we don’t have big, fancy answers to the problems we face. But we’ve also done a thing or two right. One was inviting ourselves onto the local Indian Reserve to listen to our neighbours’ stories. No gospel presentation, no alter-call, no soft-sell literature available at the back. Just plain ol’ listening. We’ve done this several times now but the best so far was a couple of years ago.
At the end of the day a large Aboriginal Elder – broad shoulders, deep face, long gray-flecked ponytail; not a Christian – motioned to speak, and the room gave him the respect he was due. “You people, what you’ve done today,” he began, “you’ve given me courage.” Then he paused and collected himself, “Now I don’t have to think that all Christians are assholes anymore.”
Now, I’d like to spare readers the mistake made by many who first ‘listened’ to that comment. Yes, there is a colloquial potty-word there, but let’s not allow the profanity to distract us from the significance of the statement. (If we recoil at the way most normal people speak then we have more to learn about listening than this short article can offer.) This man was naming a former obstacle between himself and his Creator, “all Christians,” and that obstacle had just become a passable boundary. Listening is what prompted the change. Why? Why did seeing Christians listen to his people give him courage? How did a simple gesture inspire such a massive shift?
Listening does something radical, paradoxical even. Listening conveys an attitude in keeping with the mystery at the crux of our faith. Jesus is from the very centre of triune life but he did not cling to his divine culture as if it were superior to ours. He emptied himself. Although we cannot repeat that miracle exactly – we can’t completely ‘empty’ ourselves of our own cultural ties – we can open ourselves to the others for whom Christ came. We can listen to them.
We do, of course, still have a message to speak. Jesus didn’t command us to go into all the world and listen to other cultures. But too much mouth-first fervour eventually contradicts our message. Yes, eventually, the message does have an offensive edge. But as stewards of the story about Jesus it is our responsibility to make sure we don’t offend people before they get to the offensive part. Jesus is supposed to be the Stumbling Block, not us. Many people in our world today are just beginning to stand after tripping over Christian messengers and the last thing they want to do is swallow another culturally suffocating religious sales pitch.
It was our own cultural-religious impulse to speak first and ask questions later that got this backwards in the first place – and so no amount of yet more talk will turn things around. At this point if we want to make a difference we need to start making our way differently. We need to start listening.
And when the conversation does finally come round to Jesus? I for one am not going to tie myself in knots trying see the backs of my eyeballs. Sure I’ll do my best to keep my own cultural tangles out of the message. But I’ll also rest assured that Jesus is not restricted by the terms of his introduction. He is after all the one who created my eyes in the first place. And yes, thank God, my ears too.
A shorter version of this first appeared in the MB Herald, November 2011. See www.mbconf.ca