If it is the case that contextualized theologies have all too often become a doomed enterprise, the reason, the most self-consciously biblical believe, is that the project itself is unnecessary. And there is something to be said for this argument, too. For it is certainly the case that the Word of God, read or preached, has the power to enter the innermost crevices of a person’s being, to shine light in unwanted places to explode the myths and deceits by which fallen life sustains itself, and to bring that person face to face with the eternal God. It is this biblical Word which God uses to bring repentance, to excite faith, to give new life, to sustain that life once given, to correct, nurture, and guide the Church (Jer. 23:29; II Tim. 3:16; Heb. 4:12; Jas. 1:18). The biblical Word is self-authenticating under the power of the Holy Spirit. This Word of God is the means by which God accomplishes his saving work in his people, and this is a work that no evangelist and no preacher can do. This is why the dearth of serious, sustained biblical preaching in the Church today is a serious matter. When the Church loses the Word of God it loses the very means by which God does his work. In its absence, therefore, a script is being written, however unwittingly, for the Church’s undoing, not in one cataclysmic moment, but in a slow, inexorable slide made up of piece by tiny piece of daily dereliction.
These objections to undertaking this kind of study are not, however, fatal. Indeed, not to proceed would be an unhappy outcome because theology, if it is true to its own nature, must be missiological in ins intent…
from Above All Earthly Powers, by David Wells pg. 8-9
In an older but telling novel, The Ugly American, the reader early on is introduced to Louis Sears. Sears has been a popular U.S. Senator for eighteen years but loses his bid for reelection. His preference, after his loss, is to receive a judgeship but since there are no openings, he finally settles on becoming the United States’ ambassador to the fictional Asian country of Sarkhan. However, he neither learns the language nor the customs of this country. Indeed, he forbids his staff from becoming too involved in Sarkhanese society. the problem which arises, of course, is that he does not know what is happening, since he cannot read the papers, and in Sarkhanese society, etiquette does not allow for translators to pass on bad news to the person for whom they are translating. Furthermore, he cannot communicate American interests to most people since he does not speak their language and they do not understand his.
The haplessness of this situation becomes evident early on when a shipment of rice, carried aboard American ships, and driven inland by American trucks, is presented to the people with smiles by American officials. Unbeknownst to them, however Communists have stenciled onto each stack the words, “This rice is a gift from Russia.” Yet the words are written in Sarkhanese, which none of the Americans there can understand. This ignorance is such a boon to the Soviets, who are attempting to penetrate the country, that their Ambassador sends back a dispatch shortly after this event worrying that the English press, which has become quite critical of the American Ambassador, might succeed in having him recalled. The Soviet Ambassador proposes that a biting critique of Sears appear in the Soviet journal, Pravada, as a way of building up his importance in American eyes and thereby preserving his place in Sarkhan!1
Perhaps, then, we might say that on the one end we have those theologies which have learned Sarkhanese, learned the local culture and habits, but have lost touch with the country whose policies and interests they are supposed to represent as ambassadors. Instead, having cut themselves loose, they have come to see their role as simply representing their own agendas and policies and passing these off as if they were those of the country whose ambassadors they supposedly are. On the other end, we have those theologies which are self-consciously ambassadorial but which fail to learn the Sarkhanese language and customs. Thus they are hobbled in their ability to communicate both the content of, and the reasons for, their country’s policy decisions.
1. Wells cites William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, The Ugly American (New York: W. W. Norton, 1958).
This excerpt from Above All Earthly Powers, by David Wells pg. 10-11