Power and Identity in the Global Church: Six Contemporary Cases
by Brian Howell and Edwin Zehner, eds.
This book addresses the manner in which contextualization is a social and cultural response to the Christian faith that supports both personal and cultural identities.
William Carey Library, 1605 E. Elizabeth St., Pasadena, CA 91104, 245 pages, 2009, $16.99.
—Reviewed by Douglas Hayward, associate dean and professor of anthropology and intercultural studies at Biola’s Cook School of Intercultural Studies.
One of the major foci of the literature on contextualization published in the last few decades has sought to identify both the promises and problems associated with contextualization as either a theological challenge (i.e., orthodoxy vs. syncretism) or as an ecclesiastical challenge (i.e., Is contextualization really growing the church or simply introducing impurities that weaken faith, unity, and godly standards of living?).
In contrast to these approaches, this book addresses the manner in which contextualization is a social and cultural response to the Christian faith that supports both personal and cultural identities. While all of the contributors to this volume keep their focus on the role of contextualization in power and identity concerns, they do not ignore the biblical and theological issues. Brian Jennings calls our attention to the exegetical and hermeneutical issues that arise from a culturally informed and contextualized reading of the writings of the Apostle Paul on culture. Similarly, Edwin Zehner addresses the complexity of setting boundaries of orthodoxy around the contextualization process by identifying at least four forms of syncretism. All the while he calls us back to the transcultural nature of the gospel as it embraces (or at least tolerates) a variety of styles of practice while conveying a sense of adhering to a common set of truths.
Contextualization is an anthropological and missiological challenge as well. In his chapter, Robert Priest warns that missiology needs to be grounded both in better anthropology and in better theology. And indeed, theological reflections carried out by individuals with poor anthropological understandings of the social realities on which they wish to reflect will be bad theological reflection (p. 187).
As indicated in the subtitle, this volume consists of six case studies from Africa, Europe, the Philippines, Asia, and Central America. These case studies do not focus on how to do contextualization, but rather on demonstrating how contextualization is a process in which people reflect upon their faith from the ground up rather than from the top down. In order to really understand contextualization, we need to understand how it is a process whereby believers seek to affirm who they are in respect to issues of identity, class, power, and social place.
Readers will find stimulating reflections, fresh insights, and helpful suggestions in every chapter to further advance the goals of contextualization. It has been written by scholars who know their subject well, but they write in a manner that does not require readers to be scholars. These chapters were written to do more than just stimulate academicians—they were written to encourage practitioners in the field.
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