Monday, October 30, 2006

4. Finding God Again: Time For A Change of Clothes?

It is a public holiday here in Hong Kong. The temperature is 33 degrees C. So a special greeting to friends in colder places, especially in the UK, where the clocks went back on Saturday. Believe it or not, one of the things I most miss about Aberdeen, where I last ministered, is the climate.

I want today to pick up on the theme of change and begin to ask how we, as Christians, should be thinking about cultural change. Having made one very definite change, from Aberdeen to Hong Kong, it is a subject particularly on my mind.

The next blog in this series will probably be on Thursday.

4. Finding God Again: Time For A Change Of Clothes?

In my blog, Finding God Again: Changing Times, I discussed how society has changed and is changing. In the last blog, I gave what I believe to be a snapshot of how this change is working out in one context by looking at the popular series Friends. Friends, I think, captures the values and attitudes of where many people are at in our society. I also think Friends is interesting because, from what I hear, for a lot of Christians this is the sort of Christian community they would like to create: inclusive, supportive, relationship based, and accepting. Some are suggesting that we should meet in caf├ęs and houses rather than traditional church buildings, which, of course, is where the friends all meet. But I am moving ahead of myself.

The reason I have described social change in this way is to attempt at a popular level to illustrate how much society has changed and to indicate the way it has changed. This is important because within Christian circles there is much discussion about the extent to which society has changed, what significance, if any, this has for the Christian message, and how we, as the Church are to relate to the society and culture, in which we live.

Too much of the discussion, in my opinion, takes place at a rather theoretical level and concerns definitions of words and terms. So the enlightenment, modernism, and postmodernism make frequent appearances! I have resisted discussing these terms, but given their prevalence in the discussion, I think I must at least mention them. It is now exceptionally common to hear people say that we are living in a postmodern society. I use the term myself!

Post, of course, means after. It suggests that something has happened that has meant that we have moved on to something new. It is common for social commentators to talk about 'pre-modern', 'modern', and now, 'postmodern'. People use these terms so very generally and loosely that it is very often hard to pin them down. Essentially, 'modern' refers to that attempt in the West to build a society based on scientific and rational enquiry. Certainly in the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a desire to leave behind what were considered the superstitions of previous ages and to build a society that was founded on the certainties of intellectual enquiry. This was an age of grand theories: of communism, darwinism, capitalism, colonialism and so on.

It was an age that felt itself superior to what went before; previous ages were always described using negative terms: the dark ages, superstition, magic and myth. Modernity was man come of age, discovering all truth without resorting to primitive views of reality. As I write this, it is nearly Halloween: a reminder of how people used to see the world. I find it quite funny to think that many will be celebrating Reformation Day on this day. This was the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his protest against indulgences to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, effectively the beginning of the reformation. The reformation and the move to modernity go hand in hand.

Now after two world wars, the collapse of colonialism, the prospect of nuclear annihilation, and the retreat of organized religion, there is not the same confidence in grand theories, whether religious or secular. Society has witnessed a break down in certainties: to such an extent that people have turned to very pre-modern sounding practices to give their lives direction and meaning. So it is ok to talk about spells, crystals, and horoscopes even at respectable dinner parties. This is intellectually acceptable. It is less intellectually acceptable to discuss Christianity, but that is part of the hypocrisy of our age.

This is all hopelessly simplistic, of course, and exactly what postmodernism is, and how significant it is, are all subjects for debate. We probably won’t know until long after I, for one, am dead! It is distance that gives perspective in these matters. Interesting though the discussion is, I feel the sort of academic debate that takes place when we come to discuss cultural change is often an unnecessary diversion. More important than how we categorize the change at a formal theological and sociological level, is the issue of how we address the culture in which we live, whatever label we use to define it.

Whatever you may feel about the various analyses, the fact is society has changed massively and the Church has not always been able to keep up with it. Many of our practices and answers are directed to where society was in the past and the questions it was asking then, and not to where it is in the present and the questions it is asking now. This is a common observation and I, personally, find it hard to argue with it. People have moved on and we have not moved with them. But should we have? Isn’t the Gospel about timeless truths?

Christians down the ages have always felt that we have to begin with people where they are. Hudson Taylor, a missionary to China, adopted Chinese dress and culture in order to reach people in this part of the world over 100 years ago. The idea of adapting how we express our message to our audience is, when you think about it, just plain commonsense.

Business people from one part of the world selling a product to people in another know they have to present their product in a way that can be understood by their prospective buyers. I have just received a catalogue of books for Christmas from a local bookshop. One is entitled: ‘Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries’. The children of mammon are often much wiser at this sort of thing. I don’t know if you have seen the HSBC adverts on this theme, but they are very good and very funny.

One especially is my favourite. A group of businessmen go out for a meal: one is English and the rest are Chinese. The assumption is that they are in China. The Chinese host orders the meal with a big eel as the main dish. As the commentator points out, in British culture, it is considered rude to leave any food behind, whereas, in Chinese culture, eating it all implies that your host has not provided enough. So our dear Brit, to be polite, finishes the last morsel, even though he doesn’t especially like it, and the Chinese host, also wanting to be polite, keeps ordering more. Watch it at this link!

Maybe it is because I am living in a very different culture to the one in which I grew up, but I just assume we have to speak in language that people can understand and that this involves us adapting to cultural norms. Most of us can see this when we think of going from one country to another, as I have from the UK to Hong Kong, for example. But it is just as true that we need to be aware of where our own society is and what makes it tick culturally. If western society, in general, really has changed as radically as many of us think it has, then we need to ask if our presentation of the Gospel is relevant to it. Do we need new cultural clothes? I think you can guess what my own answer would be.

But others have argued that we need to go much further and that it is not enough simply to dress in different clothes. When Toyota, for example, sell a car to the west, they use western language and culture to do it. They put on western clothes. But it is a Japanese car they are selling, substantially the same as the one I am driving out here. However, what some people are arguing with the Gospel is that it is not only the sales pitch that must be changed, but the product as well. We must change not only the clothes, but the body that is wearing them.

They argue that our understanding of the Gospel has itself been shaped and moulded by the values, beliefs, and philosophies of different ages. We need to rediscover the Gospel for ourselves in the light of where we are now in our own cultural development. This will mean revaluating our message and adapting or even changing it.

More next.

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