by George Yip
In this article, I want to give a brief introduction to post-postmodern missiology by answering two questions: Why do we need a post-postmodern missiology? and What is it?
In this article, I want to give a brief introduction to post-postmodern missiology by answering two questions: Why do we need a post-postmodern missiology? and What is it?
Why Do We Need Post-postmodern Missiology?
Below are three reasons we need post-postmodern missiology.
Modernism and postmodernism have failed. Enlightenment modernism divorces reason and faith and elevates reason above faith. It attempts to use rationality and scientific method to master both the natural world and humanity. It asserts that one can grasp directly the nature of the object without the need of language (transparency) and reveal objective reality in writing. Furthermore, it has spawned secularism. The twin problems of modernism and secularism have caused much harm to the world and the Church—not only the Western Church, but increasingly the Church worldwide. The modernist approach to mission has failed.
Postmodernism offers a necessary critique of modernism, notably the primacy of reason and science and the illusion of transparency and objectivity. However, it entails serious problems such as relativism. The postmodernist approach to mission has also failed. Therefore, a post-postmodern approach to mission is needed.
The world has changed. Today’s world is largely globalized and urbanized. Globalization has happened before, but the speeding up of the flows of capital, people, goods, images, and ideas across the world and the increase in the pace of global interactions and processes are unique in this age. We are no longer
living in closed communities with limited interaction, a situation that modernist (or traditional) missiology assumes.
Along with globalization is the huge migration of people inside a nation and across nations. While migration happened throughout human history, it has not happened on such a large scale as we see today. The people missionaries minister to are often migrants.
Anthropology has changed. Anthropology has also changed from modernist to postmodern anthropology. In modernist anthropology, one can gain objective knowledge of self and the other through careful study; and comparison among diverse others yields valid knowledge of culture. Culture is regarded as homogeneous—that is, culture is a unifying system with minimum variations within the culture. It is integrated in that culture traits are interconnected into a system. It is also discrete in that each culture has a clear boundary. Thus, one knows clearly what American culture is and it is different from Chinese culture. Much of existing missiology is tied to modernist anthropology.
Postmodern anthropology offers an incisive critique of modernist anthropology. First, we do not have objective knowledge of the other. Second, in postmodern anthropology, culture is regarded as fragmented instead of homogeneous, incoherent instead of integrated, nondiscrete, and contested. Some even wanted to discard the word ‘culture’, and in general, anthropologists today prefer to use the adjective ‘cultural’ rather than the noun ‘culture’ (Knauft 2006). Consequently, postmodern missiology is pluralistic and relativistic (Yip 2014).
Postmodern anthropology may have gone too far. The concept of culture is still needed and is important in understanding self and the other. In conclusion, since modern and postmodern missiologies are problematic, we need a post-postmodern missiology, which accepts the postmodern critique of modernism, but avoids postmodernism’s relativism and incoherence, and which takes seriously into consideration the changes in today’s world.
What Is Post-Postmodern Missiology?
The major tenets of post-postmodern missiology are as follows:
1. The representation of self and the other. The Western concept of self and the other came out in the age of modernism and colonialism. Modernism led to the westerners’ understanding of the self as the autonomous subject who can objectively study an object—namely, the other. This objective study (objectification) first came out in the seventeenth century (Foucault 1970, 398-400). One of the ways that leads to this representation of the self and the other is the practice of exclusion: the prohibition against certain statements and practices and the opposition between what is considered reason and unreason. Anything that does not fit is regarded as false. Through the natural adoption of such exclusion, human beings come to an awareness of self and then the other.
Postmodernism rejects the objectification of the other for good reasons, as pointed out by French philosopher Levinas (TI 42). The other is objectified by means of a concept which deprives the other of one’s fullness and transcendence. It is reductionist and unethical to cut the object in size to fit the concept. It is also arrogant to claim certainty of objective knowledge of the object.
In the colonial context, westerners regarded the rest (the other) under the lens of colonialism (the West as rational, orderly, and peaceful and the rest as the opposite), and, being in a more powerful position, imposed such notion on the other (Said 1979).
Furthermore, this kind of representation neglects the internal differentiation of the other, which has become prominent in this globalized era. For example, the dualistic differentiation of peasants and non-peasants neglects the wide varieties of peasants in a globalized world. Missionaries, therefore, need to beware of these problems of the representation of the other. There are at least three problematic implications.
• First, a missionary leaving one’s society to go to another society naturally represents the people there by separating them from self. The tendency is to ‘nativize’ (put in a separate frame) and ‘spatially incarcerate’ them (regard them as fixed in their location). Thus, one study of the !Kung in Botswana described the people as essentially survivors of a prior evolutionary age. They were isolated in the Kalahari desert (totally different from the ethnographer) with little contact with outsiders until the 1960s, thus experiencing little culture change until then. The task of the ethnographer was simply to describe the cultural differences.
A later study that sought to find out how the cultural differences were produced found that the !Kung had continuous contact with other groups since the pre-colonial period, were culturally influenced by others, and were not spatially limited to the desert. In locating the people in interconnected spaces, this later study was able to provide a truer picture of cultural production (Gupta and Ferguson 1992, 13-16). Missionaries therefore need to beware of nativizing and spatially incarcerating other people.
• Second, in nativizing the other, missionaries may neglect the variety of types within the other. Thus, all tribal people or peasants can easily be regarded the same by missionaries.
• Third, missionaries are constrained by their practice of exclusion. Under their socio-cultural background, Western missionaries naturally select the content and methodology of communication that they consider important and appropriate and exclude others. This may include Western theology, Western counseling, and managerial approaches to ministry. Even contextualization is done in a Western way. This problem is not limited to westerners. Today, as Majority World missionaries are gaining prominence, they are also not immune to ethnocentrism. In my time training Majority World missionaries, I came across several such cases. All missionaries need to be aware of this problem.
2. Reflexivity in studying the other. Since there is no objective knowledge of the other, we cannot avoid the subjective element in our study of the other. Some anthropologists claim that ethnographic accounts can no longer be assessed in terms of their agreement with ‘reality’; only their authors’ reflexive self-reports remain (Salzman 2002, 811). We want to avoid this extreme position that ethnography is only a description of the ethnographer’s own culture. There is a better way, and that is to make use of the understanding of others to contribute to self-awareness, which, in turn, allows for self-reflection and self-emancipation. The emancipation, finally, makes the understanding of others reliable (Scholte 1972, 448).
Just as contextualization is based on ethnographic knowledge, we also need to do contextualization with reflexivity. The process involves using the result of contextualization to contribute to self-awareness, and upon self-reflection doing further contextualization. Only this kind of contextualization is effective and appropriate.
3. Social categories as imagined. Related to the social representation of self and the other is the concept that social categories such as nation, people, culture, social system, and religious categories are socially imagined. There is no essence in these notions.
One easily committed mistake in missions is to essentialize culture. Culture is regarded not as a constructed social category, but as having essence. Consequently, everyone in the same cultural community has the same essence and behaves in the same way. This leads to stereotyping and to some undesirable results in contextualization.
One example is the Church in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan gained independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In the Soviet era the Kyrgyz people did not have a strong and distinct social identity as an ethnic group. In his study of missions and the Church in Kyrgyzstan, anthropologist Mathijs Pelkmans (2007) found that evangelical missionaries were strong advocates of contextualization into Kyrgyz culture even though the Kyrgyz identity was quite fluid. They were proud of the result of establishing indigenous Kyrgyz churches that preserved Kyrgyz culture (e.g., contextualized Kyrgyz rituals).
That said, the emphasis on Kyrgyz culture and identity and the resultant contextualization had some undesirable results. One was a prominent Kyrgyz pastor advocating that the Kyrgyz people were the lost tribe of Israel. This is a case of contextualization gone awry. It happened because missionaries communicated an understanding of culture as essentialized. The result was that many Kyrgyz Christians built their social identity on an essentialized concept of culture and ethnicity—that is, to be a Kyrgyz was to have a distinct culture/religion.
This led to that pastor’s search for an identity that went against the biblical teaching. Missionaries today urgently need to de-essentialize culture and to educate believers everywhere to re-anchor their social identity primarily on Christ and his kingdom.
4. A nuanced understanding of culture. In modernist anthropology, culture is homogeneous, mostly integrated, and discrete. In postmodern anthropology, culture is fragmented, with many intracultural variations and fluctuations across boundaries of ethnicity, gender, age, status, and life experience. Culture is incoherent in that it is disordered, with contradictory elements. It is also nondiscrete, with boundaries overlapping other cultures or even without clear-cut boundaries (Brightman 1995, 516). As mentioned before, the word ‘culture’ is generally avoided by anthropologists.
In post-postmodern missiology, the concept of culture returns with a nuanced understanding. It is partly homogeneous and partly fragmented, partly integrated and partly incoherent, and generally nondiscrete. It involves a dialectical relationship between the structural constraints of society and culture and the practices of social agents. A social agent devises strategy to deal with the context, but such strategy is influenced by cultural dispositions. These dispositions allow the agent to respond to cultural values in flexible ways, but the responses are largely regulated by the dispositions.
Furthermore, culture is conceived spatially as mobility. In a globalized world, one needs to avoid spatially incarcerating people. People are on the move, and there is a constant mixing of cultures. This can result in multiculturalism, apartheid, or hybridization. People’s attitude towards culture also varies. Some promote ethnic nationalism while others prefer cosmopolitanism (Eriksen 2007, 119). Missionaries need to be alert to all these variations and minister accordingly.
Another missiological implication is about the role of worldview. As a summary term for concepts, values, and assumptions, worldview still has functional importance. The problem is with the existing models of worldview, which conceive of worldview as being the deep level of culture significantly affecting or even determining behavioral patterns. This conception is based on the understanding of culture as mainly integrated. With a nuanced understanding of culture, such a conception can no longer hold. Furthermore, with the Western bias towards the priority of cognition, the transformation of worldview has been regarded as the key to conversion. This is not true and we need a holistic view of conversion change.
5. The complexity of community. Community today is generally complex, with many intracultural variations and a lack of clear-cut cultural boundaries. What follow are some important implications.
• People group. In view of globalism Arjun Appadurai (1996) holds that it is better to conceive of community in terms of flow rather than territory. The word ‘flow’ describes the imagined world we live in as made up of various landscapes that are disjunctive—that is, they are to a degree autonomous, ebbing and flowing in different directions and at different rates, often in conflict. Facing such disjunctive landscapes, people pick and choose as they wish.
The Chinese diaspora are connected to the global Chinese in many ways, including the economic and the ideological. That said, there is no common thread that characterizes the Chinese globally. For example, some Chinese share with other Chinese in different locations in ideology but not in economy, while others share in economy but not ideology; and such sharing may change frequently. The result is that it is hard to pinpoint the Chinese community culturally.
It is easy to see that such complex societies pose a serious challenge to frontier missiology. Its basic term, ‘people group,’ has an indeterminate meaning. That said, the concept of people group can still be salvaged, albeit in a nuanced way, like culture.
Anna Tsing (2000) insightfully points out that Appadurai’s view of disjunctive global flow comes from his context of Indian diaspora. His view therefore pertains to diaspora communities. In this global era there are other types of community. For example, Ulf Hannerz (1996) studied cosmopolitans and urbanites everywhere, and these people are not deterritorialized. Culture still matters, although under diverse cultural influences they develop a hybridized culture.
Furthermore, in spatial terms, mobile people do not just disappear in disjunctive flux. They are engaged in the construction of new, complex politics of location and travel. In some cases, they strengthen border control to keep outsiders out (Heyman and Campbell 2009). For example, if Japanese in Japan are considered a large people group, Japan has kept its border close to immigrants.
We can therefore retain the concept of people group with a nuanced understanding. For most, there is no clear-cut border; for some, we must consider multiple locations (as in the case of diaspora). Mission strategists who employ the concept of people group need to be cautious in strategizing. Missionaries who actually work in a ‘people group’ need to avoid stereotyping and be open to cultural ambiguities. In the end, it is up to the onsite missionaries to determine whether the people they minister to are a distinct people group or not.
• Polythetic contextualization. Complex society with many intracultural variations presents a challenge to contextualization in that one contextualization cannot fit the whole society. Missionaries are then faced with a choice of planting a multicultural church or planting many different kinds of contextualized churches. The latter is what I call ‘polythetic contextualization.’ It may even involve non-contextualization. Contextualization is now a norm in mission; but non-contextualization seems to be a taboo. In fact, non-contextualization may appeal to a certain segment of a society because of globalization.
• Contextualization by walking around. In management, there is the idea of management by walking around—that is, managers need to be onsite to know the situation in order to manage properly. In a globalized complex world with rapid changes, contextualization is best done by missionaries walking around. Onsite missionaries who have training in theology, anthropology, and contextualization are the best people to do contextualization.
This begins with a rapid ethnographic research, including strategies such as going to the field with a prepared checklist of questions, conducting focus group interviews, and walking through the mission field with key informants and asking for explanations along the way. Based on this knowledge, initial contextualization takes place in real situations of ministry such as evangelism and teaching. Then comes a time of reflection leading to reflexive contextualization.
• Ministry to a globalized complex world. The people missionaries minister to today are most likely immigrants, refugees, other international migrants (such as diplomats, international business people, and international students), national migrants (from rural to urban), and transnational cosmopolitans. Culturally, they may be multicultural or hybridized. Besides diaspora missiology, we also need transnational missiology and migrant missiology.
• Power and mission. We have seen power in play in the representation of self and the other, in shaping the imagined social categories, and in contextualization. Missionaries cannot escape the pervasive presence of power. One concern is the uneven power distributed among missionaries and the local believers. How can a leveling of power happen in mission? Missionaries may face unjust usage of power in the society. What should be the proper response? These and other questions on power are the concerns of post-postmodern missiology.
Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Brightman, Robert. 1995. “Forget Culture: Replacement, Transcendence, Reflexification.” Cultural Anthropology 10(4): 509-546.
Eriksen, Thomas H. 2007. Globalization: The Key Concepts. New York: Berg.
Foucault, Michel. 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Alan Sheridan-Smith, trans. New York: Vintage Books.
Gupta, A. and J. Ferguson. 1992. “Beyond ‘Culture’: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference.” Cultural Anthropology 7(1): 6-23.
Hannerz, Ulf. 1996. Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places. New York: Routledge.
Heyman, J. McC. and H. Campbell. 2009. “The Anthropology of Global Flows: A Critical Reading of Appadurai’s ‘Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy.’” Anthropological Theory 9: 131-149.
Knauft, Bruce M. 2006. “Anthropology in the Middle.” Anthropological Theory 6: 407-431.
Levinas, Emmanuel. 1991. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Alphonso Lingist trans. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
Pelkmans, Mathijs. 2007. “’Culture’ as a Tool and an Obstacle: Missionary Encounters in Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13(4): 881-899.
Said, Edward W. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.
Salzman, Philip C. 2002. “On reflexivity.” American Anthropologist 104(3): 805-813.
Scholte, Bob. 1972. “Towards Reflexive and Critical Anthropology.” In Re-inventing Anthropology. Ed. Dell Hymes, 430-457. New York: Pantheon.
Tsing, Anna. 2000. “The Global Situation.” Cultural Anthropology 15(3): 327-360.
Yip, George. 2014. “The Contour of a Post-postmodern Missiology.” Missiology 42: 399-414.
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George Yip is a missionary trainer from Asia and an instructor of mission at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Canada. Previously, he served as a pastor in Canada and a church planter in Japan.
EMQ, Vol. 52, No. 3 pp. 262-270. Copyright © 2016 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.
Questions for Reflection
1. You received a widespread derogatory comment concerning a certain ethnic group and a proposal to penalize them. How would you respond?
2. A local believer wants to join a movement aiming at political autonomy of his minority group in order to preserve their ‘culture’. He comes to you for advice. What would you say?
3. Some leaders in your mission organization are advocating sharpening the focus of the organizational strategy to unreached people groups based only on some quantifiable criteria. How would you respond to it?
4. You are planning a series of contextualized sermons for a local setting. How do you go about doing it?