by Jonathan Ingleby, Tan Kang San, and Tan Loun Ling, eds.
Regnum Books International, 6HR, UK, 109 pages, 2013, $16.00.
—Reviewed by Dennis J. Horton, associate professor of religion and associate director of ministry guidance, Baylor University.
From the beginning of Christian missions, Christians have struggled with the challenge of contextualizing the gospel appropriately. The first generation of Jewish Christian leaders debated the essential requirements for Gentile Christians. Was circumcision an essential element of the Christian faith, or simply a Jewish practice that was no longer necessary in this new cultural context? The early Christian leaders also had to determine which elements of Gentile culture were acceptable for Christians.
Given the growth of Christianity within Asian cultures, the contextualization issue has become even more pressing. At what point does contextualization of the gospel become syncretism or even heresy? David Miller writes that our goal should be to avoid the “dragons” of syncretism and heresy without becoming “guilty of importing an alien form of Christianity which will not flourish in its new setting” (p. 27).
To address the delicate balance between a lack of contextualization on the one hand and syncretism on the other, the editors of this volume have compiled eight thoughtful and thought-provoking essays originally presented at the Fourth Asian Mission Consultation in 2012. The first four essays focus on theory, presenting broad frameworks to “shape and guide Christian approaches toward theological education and mission training” (p. vi). The second section of the book moves from theory to practice as the next four essays explore how Christian contextualization must take different shapes within Asia’s various cultures. Each writer focuses on contextualization within one of the major religious traditions: Islam, Buddhism, Chinese religious traditions, and Hinduism. The overall purpose of the book is to become a resource guide for those who are training Christian missionaries to work within Asian cultures.
While other books have addressed the topic of contextualization in Christian missions, this particular work does make a valuable contribution as it relates specifically to Asian cultures. All of the essays are well-written and insightful. Rory Makenzie, for instance, draws several valuable lessons from Karl Reichelt’s efforts to contextualize the Christian message to reach followers of Mahayana Buddhism. Carol Walker highlights several interesting examples of the ways in which Islamic beliefs and practices vary from one region to the next, reminding us not to overgeneralize about Islam or other faiths. These two essays alone would justify the purchase of the book, but the entire collection contains helpful insights.
Perhaps the only noteworthy weakness in the book is its brevity—it is only 109 pages, including endnotes and bibliography. As I finished the last page of the final chapter, I found myself wanting to explore the topic further. Such lucid brevity, however, may be understood as a strength rather than a weakness—better to be left with a desire for more rather than to be burdened with unnecessary detail. The essays successfully raise the central issues related to the theory and practice of contextualization for the gospel. Those looking for guidance as they train cross-cultural ministers have found a valuable resource.
Check this title:
Bevans, Stephen B. and Katalina Tahaafe-Williams, eds. 2011. Contextual Theology for the Twenty-First Century. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock.
Moreau, A. Scott. 2012. Contextualization in World Missions: Mapping and Assessing Evangelical Models. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel.
EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 508-510. Copyright © 2014 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.