Contextualization

Have you ever seen the “want to get away?” Southwest Airline commercials on television during Sunday afternoon football?  The situations have absolutely nothing to do with flying, but if I could, I would fly Southwest just because of the ads!  When teachers say “communicating truths for a 21st century audience” they are affirming the concept in education called “contextualization.”  Whenever there is transfer of ideas from one person to another, people rely on “bridges” to get their message across to someone else.  Communication of ideas is similar to selling products: sometimes one must search for the connective thread between the two.  Meaning must never be lost, however, or people will not purchase the product.

If I bear the responsibility of communicating Deuteronomy 22:8 to an American audience in the 21st century, then I must explain that people used the roof of their home as living space which necessitated a parapet (e.g., a railing) so that people would not fall off and be severely injured or killed.  I may make the direct connection to all manner of laws we now pursue to protect people (i.e., fences around swimming pools).  But I would make sure that I got to the point of the Old Testament law: people are important and our use of property must support that belief.

If I am teaching a class of teenagers Deuteronomy 22:8 today I might ask them a series of questions that would help them attain biblical thinking: (1) In what ways do you see the law from this verse being mirrored in our world today?  (2) How would you apply this concept in real life that you interact with every day?  (3)  How have you seen the dismissal or disregard for protecting people with personal property in your experience?

For communication with unbelievers, Paul used contextualization when he spoke in Lystra and Derbe.  Part of his message utilized the idea that rain falls on just and unjust people alike.  Even then, he had trouble making his point (Acts 14:14-18).  The apostle found common ground in the famous Acts 17 passage making connection with his audience through their idols and poets (16-34), again, with mixed results.  If I am speaking to a group of unbelieving young people today, I will quote their music lyrics and interact with films they enjoy.  Cultural connections are made to enable my connections to true Truth.  Paul went so far as to have Timothy make physical alterations so as to not allow circumcision to be a barrier as they entered the Jewish community (Acts 16:1-3).  In our culture, that may mean a missionary to NFL football players or bikers or surfers need acquire tattoos and piercings (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

When I was teaching a course at Moody entitled “Studying and Teaching the Bible” I would spend 45 minutes with a class showing television commercials.  Their responsibility was very specific: note the “bridges” between content of the product and how the product was being sold.  Then I would ask them to do the same thing with various well-known passages of Scripture asking, “By what means will you get 21st century people to understand a 3500 year old statement in Genesis?”  The key to the process is walking the fine line between the world of Scripture and our world today.

Mark Eckel is professor of The First Testament at Crossroads Bible College.  He emphasizes “first” since the concept of “old” does not communicate well to a “new” audience.

One comment

  1. Dr. Eckel,

    I wholeheartedly concur that since the message, revelation, and principles of the bible are timeless, then we who impart it must do so with a mind to the common, modern man. Not only must our “bridges” make connections for our audiences, but our lives and words must serve others to meet them where they are. Only then will we take ourselves out of the way so the Gospel and Jesus can be known.

    On the other hand, I have an observation. Paul had Timothy go through physical alteration for an entirely different set of reasons than one might get a tatoo today. In my understanding, the Jews of that day would have never given Timothy an audience, if he was known to offend their most basic of Jewish holy laws. So, to gain an audience, he was circumcised. That did not make Timothy holier in reality. Yet, his doing so served the Jews at the very point where their self-righteousness and legalism hindered them from coming to grace.

    So, the principle I take away from this is the alterations I make to myself are commendable only when it is a matter of righteousness in the eyes of my desired audience. More importantly, my alteration must not tear down the whole of biblical principle in order to gain an edge on a part. Plainly speaking, getting a tattoo has no bearing in overcoming a pre-conceived notion that I am not holy. But, God clearly says I am to be holy in all matters of life. However, if I change my diet to halal or kosher foods, then that does communicate holiness and a desire not to offend my audience for their pre-conceived ideas of what is righteous and lawful. It would also gain their ear to the message of grace, because I would not offend them with my pagan behavior.

    I hope this is helpful. It has been to me while on the foreign fields.

    In Christian Love,
    Samuel Kean

    That is, circumcision was a holy thing, not to be compared with tattoos

    On the other hand

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