“The Western world has lost its faith in the shadow of church steeples.” (Alex McManus)
A few years ago I wrote the essay, “What Is a Missional Hermeneutic?” for Catalyst. Over the next year, I want to continue a conversation around the issues of mission and biblical interpretation.
First, I want to encourage us to think about the biblical model of using the language and thought-world of its cultural environment to articulate God’s vision for human faith and life. This offers us a model for thinking about proclaiming and sharing the gospel for our 21st-century context.
The key to developing new language for proclaiming the gospel is learning to listen to the surrounding culture for its prevailing metaphors and stories. It’s not about our creativity as communicators but our capacity to listen and study attentively. Our assumption is that our missional God in the person of the Risen Christ is leading his people into the world on mission. Jesus goes before us. It’s our task to be attentive to the Spirit’s leading so that we may build on what God is already doing. In other words, the new language already exists. It’s up to us to find it, refit it with gospel content, and deploy it. Think of Paul on Mars Hill in Acts 17. It’s about committing to using the language of the street and the marketplace rather than only the language of the church. When we read the Scriptures within their ancient contexts, we discover that biblical authors drew deeply from the prevailing culture in deploying the metaphors and symbols of the day as vehicles for telling God’s story.
Let me offer some examples.
The creation stories in Genesis (Gen 1:1-2:3; 2:4-25) are profound in their setting the stage for the scriptural story. But they are also part of the broader Ancient Near Eastern context that produced competing creation stories. Close study reveals a common vocabulary deployed distinctly to highlight Israel’s understanding of creation and the creator in light of and against other Ancient Near East depictions. Genesis 1–2 declare the existence of a Creator God who is able to act unilaterally by his word apart from any context of conflict with the “gods” to bring into being and shape the creation. Moreover, elements worshipped by Israel’s neighbors – e.g., the sun, moon, and stars of day four – are reckoned merely as parts of God’s creative work. Most profoundly these texts emphasize the profound role women and men were to play in God’s creational intentions. Humanity alone bears the divine image (1:26-27). Humanity stands at the pinnacle of God’s creative work in the six days of God’s acts (1:1-31) and at the center of the narrative developed in 2:4-25. These elements served a profound role in their Near Eastern context.
The Song of Moses and the Israelites (Exod 15:1b-18) is a powerful hymn celebrating God’s victory over Egypt and God’s future victories on behalf of his people. Yet a careful study demonstrates that it uses language and motifs drawn from the Baal Epic known within the wider regions of Syria-Palestine. The Song deploys the mythic themes of conflict, order, kingship, and palace (or temple) building in order to emphasize the transcendent meaning of the Lord’s vanquishing of Egypt’s forces as a demonstration of his sovereign power to reign. Moreover, by drawing from Canaanite mythic patterns, the Song subverts the status quo religions of Canaan by boldly proclaiming Israel’s gospel of the Lord who enters the human story on the side of an oppressed people against the power of Egypt and who after the defeat of Egypt simultaneously causes terror in God’s people’s future enemies and brings God’s people to his holy mountain. Such actions are astonishing within their Ancient Near Eastern context. Gods typically side with the powerful and don’t invite mere mortals to their cosmic mountains. Yet this is precisely how Israel experienced its salvation from the forces of Egypt. Seeing how the Exodus story spoke directly to its Near Eastern Context raises the communicated truth to a new level and serves as a model for gaining the gospel a hearing in our day.
Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians Christians in 1:27a draws on the motif of “citizenship” to articulate Paul’s vision for a missional ethos in Philippi. Many of the Philippian Christians enjoyed the status of being Roman citizens. This gave them privileges and rights that few within the empire enjoyed. At the core of this exhortation is a verb that we struggle to translate. Politeuomai has at its root the idea of serving or conducting oneself as a good citizen. Most English translations correctly capture the force of the verb by choosing phrasings such as “conduct yourselves” or “live your life.” But these translations miss the contextual force of Paul’s words. If Paul merely wanted to say “conduct yourself” or “live your life” he could have used peripateō (e.g., 1 Thess 2:12; Col 1:10; Eph 4:1). Instead he uses a verb with the sense of citizenship to help his audience imagine a new kind of citizenship higher than Roman citizenship. Paul chooses politeuomai because he is using the Philippians’ context to help them understand what it means to be a Christ-follower in Philippi. They are no longer to live merely as Roman citizens. Their lives are now to be shaped by the values and ethos of the kingdom of heaven. In fact, Paul frames the main argument of Phil 1:27-4:1 with references to citizenship (1:27; 3:20).
What are the dominant ideals and stories of the people whom God has sent you to serve?
How does the gospel engage these ideas?
What language is already present that can serve as a vehicle for clearly communicating the gospel in your context?