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Invitation to Cross-Cultural TheologyCase Studies in Vernacular Theologies
By William A. Dyrness
ZondervanCopyright © 1992 Zondervan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIntroduction: Toward a Theology of the People
THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE CHURCH AS AN INTER-CULTURAL BODY
The explosive growth of the church, especially in those areas of the world called the Third World, has enabled us to fill out John's vision in Revelation 7 in a very concrete way. There, you will remember, John sees a great multitude, that no one can number from every tribe and nation, singing praise to God. We know, for example, that that chorus will contain millions of Chinese Christians who worship in small house churches that up until recently were unnoticed by the powerful leaders of that nation. It will include many from the Indian peoples of Central America who are forced to scratch out a living from a tiny plot of land or to sell themselves to large multinationals as day laborers. Some, who presently make a precarious living on a large garbage dump in downtown Manila, Philippines, will join that chorus. Many will come from peoples of East Africa who at present are struggling with land that is losing its fertility and who are seeking to preserve their cultural identity in the midst of modernizing forces they neither understand nor control. And, of course, there will be millions from North America who now rush off to work day by day via modern cars or light-rail systems while they struggle to maintain spiritual values in an often hostile environment.
Beyond the fact that Christians throughout the world face many kinds of difficulties, and often persecution, these images underline the diversity of issues that Christians are called to reflect upon today. Believers must not only wrestle with traditional problems of communicating the Gospel in the light of complex religious traditions, now they must reflect on entrenched racial prejudices, drug wars, complex political relationships, long-smoldering liberation movements, and all the problems associated with expanding city populations and the secularization of societies.
Beyond this, Christians now face a situation in which these realities are rapidly changing. Who would have dreamed that Eastern Europe would have experienced its liberation from Communism, or that South Africa would take steps to dismantle apartheid? Who can imagine what the political changes in China or the drug wars in Latin America will mean for the church in those places? Who could have imagined how quickly a crisis of the magnitude of the Gulf War could arise?
But for Christians concerned to see the church grow and prosper the real questions are: What shape will Christian obedience take in these places? And what kind of theological reflection is appropriate to this obedience? As a start to answering these questions we might begin by asking what kind of Christian thinking is already taking place there. How have Christians in these places understood the command to follow Christ?
Architects have a technical term for those structures that are designed and built by the people who will live in them. They call this vernacular architecture. For millennia people have taken whatever is at hand-rocks, mud, pieces of wood-to construct dwellings for themselves. On a world historical scale, of course, this has far and away been the most common kind of architecture, and even today produces structures of marvelous subtlety and beauty. In this study we would like to make a similar point for the kind of theology people commonly do as a part of their everyday lives. Let us think of this as vernacular theology: that theological framework constructed, often intuitively, by Christians seeking to respond faithfully to the challenges their lives present to them.
When things are put in this way it becomes immediately evident that a people's theology tends to respond to very specific and concrete issues. In China Christians ask: How does our faith in Christ relate to cooperation with the government-authorized Three-self Churches? For the Mam Indians, Christian reflection inevitably raises the question of their relation to the dominant Ladino culture. One of the discoveries of my previous study of Third-World theology was that systematic reflection outside the West tended to reflect much more on the actual social and even the economic situation of the people (Dyrness, 1990). And it tended to be much more mission oriented. In a word, it was closer to the real-life situations of people whose lives God had touched.
But while I found this exciting, when I finished those studies, I had the uneasy feeling that large parts of the church and large areas of experience were still being left out. After all, I was still only reading about people who had access to higher (usually Western) education and modern publishing facilities (and who wrote in one of the few languages I could read). What about the vast body of preachers and teachers who had no access to these things: What sort of theology were they doing?
During the year our family lived in Africa, and I was writing on Third-World theology, we occasionally visited the large independent church in Mathare Valley, Nairobi, called the Redeemed Gospel Church. There, each Sunday, several thousand believers crowded into a circus tent to hear Bishop Kitonga preach in English and Swahili. As I listened, I realized that I was hearing theology being done in an oral mode that communicated directly to the people living in this vast and sprawling slum settlement. The bishop regularly related biblical passages to the problems of drugs, thievery, and alcoholism. I began to urge my students to go and listen to the bishop and reflect on the theology he was doing.
From these experiences has grown an increasing conviction that there is an entire dimension of theological reflection that theologians regularly ignore, or even despise; theological frameworks that ordinary Christians develop in the course of their experiences with God and Scripture. I began to ask myself, How can we take advantage of this change in focus? What will the enterprise of theology look like in such a world? One answer that is commonly given (or assumed) is that it must continue to look like it has always looked. After all, God's Word cannot change, so the truth of Christianity and the Gospel will be the same-it will meet these new challenges in the same victorious way that it has met previous difficulties.
This point of view was reflected in the comment of a veteran missionary to Africa when he heard that I was writing a book about theology in the Third World. He was glad I was doing that, he said, because much that new Christians in Africa were writing and saying was wrong. We should encourage them, he concluded, but we need to be very careful to help them correct their mistakes.
Excerpted from Invitation to Cross-Cultural Theology by William A. Dyrness Copyright © 1992 by Zondervan . Excerpted by permission.
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