Coming to Terms with Culture, Context, and Civil Conversations

In 1979, I read the just-released *Contextualization: A Theology of Gospel and Culture* by Bruce J. Nicholls. I still recall his description of contextualization tasks when one African tribe wanted to share the gospel with another.

The way Nicholls saw it, they would need to think through at least four cultures: (1) Their own tribe’s culture and how it differed from (2) the other tribe’s culture. (3) How their culture had been affected by colonial culture syncretized into it by European missionaries.

(4) What the culture of biblical times was had to be explored and interpreted in order to exegete principles that could/should be applied to Christians in either tribe — i.e., which practices in the Bible were cultural options, not moral requirements.

In decades since, I’ve gradually understood better the complexity of these interconnected contextualization tasks. Four key things come to mind as essential: (1) personal presence with other people, (2) careful listening (basically two open ears, one closed mouth), and (3) time. (4) We need to view each person as living an individual culture within their larger social context. We aren’t amorphous parts of a categorical group or label. Useful as cultural categories are, the larger the group, the less likely its paradigm features apply to a person in it.

Contextualization to bridge cultural differences is a paradoxical practice. We can not discern general cultural trends if we do not truly hear lived experiences of specific individuals. And if we only pay attention to individuals, we fail to see how culture influences them.

Probably a fifth discipline is needed for cross-cultural communication to be more effective: humility. Namely, a willingness to share in the conversation – not be in control over it, plus speak honestly and keep asking clarification questions to work through to understanding.

It strikes me these five practices also form the core of civility in social discourse, regardless of the topics at hand. But humility is the center of civility; if we are unwilling to partner in conversations, surely we only get diatribes and debates, never true dialogue.

Here’s the link to the 2003 reprint of Bruce Nicholls’ book, one of the formative volumes in the 1970sand ’80s on understanding the context for effective cross-cultural communications.

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