Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Divine Swine?

Just how far can we go in trying to express the Gospel message in contemporary contexts?

Recently over lunch, a fellow I know related a story to me about the difficulties faced in missions work. The story comes from a friend of his, the fellow said, and goes something like this:

"Working with a remote tribe, a missionary came to the gospel passage where John the Baptist declares, "Behold the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world." The problem was, this island tribe had never seen a lamb or a sheep. Not even a picture of one.

As this translator dialogged with the tribal elders, he began to describe the imagery that this passage described. He elaborated on the attributes of the lamb and its sacrificial symbolism. When he finished, he asked if there was an animal they were familiar with that might have these same spiritual connotations. With big smiles on their faces they replied that, yes, indeed there was. This tribe sacrificed pigs, native to their island.

So after much struggling with God, and prayer, the missionary translated the passage for the tribe as this: "Behold the pig of God Who takes away the sin of the world!" What's important here is that the principle of Scripture was expressed in a contemporary way and the message is now getting through."

I was rather stunned, as were the other people sitting at our table. The pig of God?!

This, my friends, is why we need good education. Prior to age 8, I had never seen a real-life sheep. Even to this day, any substantial knowledge of sheep and Shepherding I have is restricted to what I have been told by others, and the pictures they have shown me. How hard would it be to show a picture of a sheep to this tribe? Or, lacking a picture, simply describe the sheep and how they behave?

Sheep are helpless, easy prey without a good shepherd. Pigs are not. Sheep are fairly gentle animals, who respond to the voice of their shepherd. Pigs are not, and do not. Sheep are silent before their shearers, but pigs are not shorn. Pigs are slaughtered. I'm under the impression that they are not quiet about it either. Just how many of Jesus teachings using the imagery of sheep would be distorted, or even contradicted, if you impose the imagery of a pig in the place of a sheep? How many years will other teachers and missionaries have to spend fixing the problems such a "translation" can create, if they can be fixed at all?

I think this missionary is right to have struggled in prayer. He should have struggled more. If we follow this missionary's line of thinking, how far should we go in contextualizing the Gospel message? Suppose a people group are unfamiliar with good, faithful Fathers. Should we then baptize in the name of the Mother, Son, and Holy Spirit? No, you explain from the Bible how Fathers are supposed to behave, and that will clarify the imagery being used. What if the culture you are trying to reach has rejected marriage? Do we start calling the church the "same-sex partner/one night stand" of Christ? I think you get the idea.

I'm not saying we need to export American churches with fellowship halls and pews, with ice cream socials and VBS. What I am saying is that teachers need to actually teach, not confuse.

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