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Saturday, 7 May 2016

Contextualising for the Culture or Changing the Gospel?

This is a subject that I had not really considered before. I was recommended two books by Don Richardson;Peace Child  and Lords of the Earth" (via this blog post.)  Almost by coincidence I then picked up Bruchko. I realised at the conclusion that all three books have the same central theme running throughout; using cultural analogies/context to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ among primitive tribal people groups. I decided as a fellow missionary that this approach was worthy of further examination.

I have already reviewed "Peace Child" and "Lords of the Earth." I enjoyed both books immensely and although some people might be disturbed by the rampant violence/cannibalism in the initial chapters, I felt that this may have been necessary to demonstrate the total transformation that came about when these people found Jesus. In both of these books the missionaries set about learning the tribal languages immediately, they were heart-broken every-time someone died without the Gospel as they felt the weight of the responsibility to communicate it before it was too late for others. This, I believe, is a natural human emotion for a missionary who already has a heart for the lost. Missionaries know that God is in control, that He will save those whom He has elected and that He understands the frustrations of learning languages/cultural barriers etc, but it doesn't change the pain of losing someone to a lost eternity.

Again in both of these books, the missionaries conformed to the culture as much as possible; they lived and worked among the people, they led simple non-material lifestyles, they learned the languages and behaviours, they studied the tribal history and culture, they ate some tribal food. They couldn't really dress like the natives who wore very little but had it been necessary to communicate the Gospel I believe they would have found ways to work around this. They also needed to continue to eat some Western food in order to remain healthy as their bodies were just not used to the local delicacies.

However, the missionaries always made a distinction when things that were cultural became unbiblical. They did not compromise the integrity of the Gospel in order to blend in with the culture even if it meant losing some of the relationships they had nurtured. This created some difficult situations, even showdowns, especially in relation to sickness when the people had their own methods via their spirits and the missionaries would only help them in the name of God, they knew that these people might die if they didn't receive easily administerable medicines, but they did not utilise the cultural methods knowing this would confuse the Gospel in the minds of the people. It might also strengthen the bonds of the people with their spirits if they weren't clear where the power had actually come from. Other situations also called for the missionaries to reject cultural practices in favour of biblical ones.

In both books the cultural analogies were used to assist in effectively communicating the Gospel. In "Peace Child" the missionaries had come to a seemingly impossible barrier as the people on hearing the Gospel message believed Judas was a hero as friendship betrayal was honoured in their culture, the Peace Child analogy was necessary to correct this cultural misunderstanding. The missionaries found in both cases that there were cultural stories/traditions that could be used to enable the people to effectively understand the Gospel in terms that were culturally relevant. The Gospel message was still the same. The missionaries (or at least the author) believed that God had planted these "redemptive analogies" within these cultures to enable the later spread of the Gospel and he believed that similarities could be found hidden within every culture. This is certainly possible as God the Creator prepared works in advance for His servants to complete.

So what about Bruchko? Some readers may see little difference. Indeed there is little criticism of this book and many 4 and 5 star reviews. I found the stories almost unbelievable at times and it read like a work of fiction. Bruchko (Bruce Olson) is the story of a recently converted American missionary who set off into the jungles of Venezuela and Colombia to attempt to single-handedly evangelise the Motilone Indian's. He was immediately rejected by other Christian Missionaries due to the unorthodox way that he arrived in their midst; no mission board/organisation, no funding, no clear plan etc etc. The callous way in which he was allegedly treated seems hard to believe and I wonder if there was more to this story than what is relayed....

Anyway, Bruchko persevered making his way into the jungle whilst struggling with disease, depression and all manner of other things. He eventually found a tribal people and lived among them for a year, he learned their language. He then left them only to be twice returned after being bucked by his mule. He finally left for good and pursued his original goal of finding the Motilone Indian's who tried to kill him on his arrival unannounced and unaccompanied into their territory. He spent several years living among them learning the culture and the new tribal language. He did not even attempt to share the Gospel for a number of years believing that it would be misunderstood due to the culture. He waited until he saw a parallel (redemptive analogy) within the culture and then attempted to use this to share the Gospel. Later his focus seemed to be on medical/health/educational improvements and land development. He remained living and working among the people for over 30 years; many site this as evidence of his success and the fact that it is believed that 70% of the tribal people groups in this area are now "Christians." The Motilone Indian's began evangelising other tribes....

There were some details however in Bruchko that concerned me and I finished it feeling uncomfortable in a way that I hadn't on concluding the other two books. There were times when Olson's lack of preparedness made him a financial burden to others in a way that went beyond living by faith. He was often forced to go without food for days, even weeks, and became seriously ill and nearly died many times as a result. He was reliant on the kindness, generosity and goodwill of those that he ended up living among both in the city and in the jungle in a way that embarrassed him (and probably them.) Does God want His servants to end up in these situations?

There were a few occasions noted where he committed acts of civil (criminal?) disobedience that weren't directly related to sharing the Gospel. He was informed that he couldn't go to a certain area without a VISA but he went anyway disregarding this instruction. He later persuaded a friend to give/steal a substantial quantity of medicines from the stock belonging to the local oil company plant due to an outbreak of disease in his tribe.

By far the thing that I struggled with the most was his use of the local witch doctor to treat disease. Bruchko believed that the witch doctor was actually trying to harness the power of God and that she was just ignorant in her methods. She was regularly chanting over her patients. Bruchko deliberately infected himself with an illness (by transference of substance from a sick patient) in order to convince the witch doctor to use his medicine. This whole approach seemed to me to be taking cultural conformity too far and also to be heading for future confusion as to which god is truly being worshiped. This was especially true as he hadn't yet found a way to communicate the true Gospel so he was basically just keeping the people healthy because he had developed a heart for them.

Bruchko helped these people groups in many ways; he taught them basic sanitation and education, and later translated one of the Gospels and also Philippians into their language. He doesn't mention much about this other than to say that they had to adapt/change some stories to fit the culture e.g. the man who built his house on the sand (in Jesus' parable) became the wise man because culturally this helped the people understand the story. I was struck, on reading this relatively small detail, with the difference between how the missionaries handled this type of thing in the first two books I had read; when they faced an impossible cultural dilemma they didn't change the story but used the analogy to help the people understand the story. Maybe some would say this is pedantic but how many other stories were changed in the translation and how can we be sure God's original meaning remained intact? The Scriptures were inspired by God who knew all of the cultural issues that would arise. Should missionaries be changing Scripture like this?

Bruchko rarely mentions his devotional life; prayer or Bible study. At one stage he allows a tribal member to eat part of his (only?) Bible due to a misunderstanding of a redemptive analogy. He encourages the tribal custom of placing dead bodies high in the trees to be consumed by vultures and even states that this is how his body will be disposed of!

I was astonished by the very high numbers of conversions reported at the end of Bruchko. It seems that ALL of the tribe had become Christians at a meeting mentioned in the book and later evangelised other tribes. Whilst God is clearly capable of these types of miraculous mass conversions, I find these stories increasingly difficult to believe and I find myself questioning the depth of understanding of these people. This is especially true when I see little evidence of real spiritual struggle going on for their souls. Maybe the author just didn't mention this aspect. But it seemed to me that his focus was just as much or more on making friends and helping the people practically than it was on sharing the Gospel with them especially as he waited for so many years before attempting it, probably due to the offence that might be caused.

One of the striking things about the other two books is the immense spiritual struggles the missionaries encountered before even one conversion and the loss of life they endured. In Lords of the Earth a whole family was sacrificed in a plane crash which I'm sure seemed meaningless at the time but later enabled the Gospel to progress in a remarkable way. God's "ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts than our thoughts!"

In conclusion, no missionary is perfect; they will make many mistakes and hopefully learn from them. I'm sure that God used all of these missionaries and their various weaknesses to accomplish His purposes and bring good out of failure. They alone know how many of the stories relayed are true down to the last detail and God alone knows how many of these souls that have professed faith are truly born again.

We can learn lessons from reading these books. i believe that the use of redemptive analogies is a fascinating and effective way to assist these tribal people (and others) in understanding the Gospel message but ONLY if the analogy is a clear fit for the meaning that God originally intended. i don't believe God would have us change parts of the Bible to fit the cultural context in a way that changes the meaning. We need to be careful to ensure we don't allow culture to over-ride the Bible. When there is clear division, the Bible must always take precedence regardless of the cultural consequence.