In our continuing celebration of the Incarnation, we must remember that Jesus was born into a specific culture and that that culture was quite dissimilar to our Western culture. The Christ was embodied, that is he became flesh, and he dwelt, in doing so he ‘localized’ the Good News. He presented himself and his ministry in ways that were easily understood in that local culture. The Pharisees, for instance, had no difficulty in recognizing and reacting to his claims, as they ‘despised and rejected’ him. There was much that remained shrouded in mystery until Pentecost but Jesus ‘enculturated’ the Good News so that it could be: heard, understood, accepted or rejected by those who heard him and witnessed his activity.
Early in my career, I remember a growing frustration as I tried to preach about the ‘Parable of the Lost Sheep’ to my Cree audience. These were folks who had no experience of sheep and didn’t have a vocabulary that easily accommodated the concept. Part way through my scripted message I realized that “This is not working!” and made a shift. This was not my finest moment as a missioner. I learned that day that culture is vital. I needed to communicate in a way that could be heard and responded to, by the folks of a very different culture!
For years I have been doing this for myself. I have a constant need to understand the culture of Scripture and how to apply it to my own. There is a danger to this process. I can easily misapply Scripture by giving precedence to my culture rather than the truths of Scripture. We call this the error of syncretism. We use, or rather misuse Scripture to defend our culture.
As ‘missioners’ (those sent), we are called to brave the danger of syncretism. God is sending us “into the world” to share the Good News. We do this in a certain culture and we need to ‘enculturate’ the gospel.
This week I have been continuing to ponder the Christmas message “The Word became flesh…” At the writing of this John’s readers would have heard the word “Logos” or “Word” and ‘got it. The idiom was a part of their understanding and their culture. I began to ‘noodle on this’. “How would I say the same thing in our Western Postmodern culture, so that people would similarly grasp the concept?”
The answer I came up with is, “The Big Bang became flesh”. For certain creationists this may be a jarring phrase and seem like syncretism, but I think people who have not heard the Good News can hear this and respond to it. I tried the phrase first with a person who I respect for his theological understanding. He agreed that it was an apt phrase. I imagine trying it with a non-believing intellectual. This person might well scoff off the idea but would immediately understand what I was saying. I did try it with one of my ‘street level’ friends, who knows the phrase mostly from the television show and he too understood what I was getting at right away. We read through John chapter one changing “Word” for Big Bang and my friend excitedly admitted that for the first time it made sense to him.
We are called to incarnate the Good News. We are placed in a certain culture and it is here that we must live out and proclaim this Gospel. As well as incarnation we must be concerned with enculturation. Danger lurks along the way, but this is a road we must travel if we are to follow Jesus. We can only rely on the help of his Spirit.
We had a great time at our Christmas Dinner Party. There were over 30 helpers and about 90 guests. Everyone left satisfied and happy. I left exhausted! The next morning another group of over 20 volunteers put on a lavish breakfast. Again no one left hungry or feeling unloved. After we set the room back up ready for Sunday Worship, I came home weary but, oh so contented! Thank you for your prayers. I have an idea about next year’s Christmas Outreach. I’m excited already!