In the last ten years I have become jaded about the word "contextualization" the way I used to be jaded (and still am) about "community". "Community" is one of those buzzwords used by people who are out to sell you something, namely their particular idea of community. I have written elsewhere on this blog about how much of what passes for "community" in Christian circles does not constitute community but alliance.
Much that passes for contextualization is tangential appropriation. Now let's be fair to post-internet preachers, it's not as though pastors didn't scour newspaper headlines for sometimes dubious sermon illustrations before Al Gore invented the internet. Cartoons depicting pastors desperately trying to form the acronym SUPERBOWL in sermon illustrations pre-date the internet. Christians in America are nothing if not eager to over-explain themselves. Thus the Wittenburg Door could publish a classic little one panel strip where a Christian singer songwriter is tuning his guitar and says, "Let me tell you a fifteen minute story about how God inspired me to write this three minute song." As Dan put it over on City of God, sorta, contextualization is what you do when you're not busy talking about doing it.
Much as I love brothers and sisters in Christ over at Mars Hill let me ask a leading question here, who is engaging culture and moving upstream to influence culture more, Driscoll when he rants about Avatar and Twilight or Andrew Stanton making movies like Finding Nemo and WALL-E? Someone seems quite a bit further upstream and engaging cultural concerns from within a Christian perspective and if I had to pick between Mark Driscoll and Andrew Stanton then Stanton seems like the person further upstream and more directly engaging culture. After all those Mars Hill members who listened to three months of Peasant Princess got busy and spawned babies odds are pretty good that their progeny are going to get exposed to exponentially more hours of Pixar films than Driscoll sermons. And this, really, is at it should be, but it also means that "engaging culture" and "influencing culture" are the things that are busy being done by people who rarely announce that this is what they're doing, they just go do it. Actually do it, not just talk about how Christians should aspire to do this.
A few years ago I wrote that the only real danger in any contextualization is the simple question of WHAT is being contextualized. Are you contextualizing "the Gospel" or contextualizing yourself? Contextualizing the Gospel would be discussing the teaching of Christ, the teaching of the apostles, the Triune God, and Christ as come in the flesh and risen from the dead in a way that touches upon a time and place. The moment of appropriation is present in any case of contextualization. Paul quotes Hellenistic poets and shares what they get right before proceeding to discuss who Jesus is.
But Paul quotes the Hellenistic poets as a pretext as much as a gesture of mutual understanding. The pretext is to move on to the Gospel itself, which interrupts and subverts the culture that is being engaged. Paul says "This and this you have are true but it is not adequate to a proper understanding of the true person and nature of God." To the extent that old-schoolers like MacArthur say that we should not contextualize the Gospel I agree when this means that the core doctrines of the faith don't change and we don't need to diverge from that.
Yet Francis Schaeffer's criticism of evangelicalism remains, "If Jesus is the answer, what is the question?" I am no longer sure that the "never contextualize" folks will ever care about this because they see that everything comes down to sin and there's nothing new or interesting about neurobiology, theory of mind, or anything else to discuss because there is nothing new under the sun and that means we don't have to study too long to figure out that whatever is going on today is just more of the same old heresy. Well ... kinda. But, for instance, not all stripes of Montanism are the same, just as not all stripes of church/state equivalency are the same. Reformed Christians who would denounce papists for a conflation of church and state concerns didn't seem to mind backing the Confederacy in a way that made them the pot calling the kettle black. If I may go so far as to say Anabaptists have one good idea it's proposing that the historical nexus of church with state power is always a bad one. It is, ironically, one thing a lot of American Christians have assimilated (and credobaptism) while explicitly rejecting all kinds of other things. But I digress again.
I've heard more than a few Keller sermons by now and when Keller provides an illustration or a contextualization moment it has a particular character. In a sermon on Christian friendship he cites C. S. Lewis' The Four Loves. Keller notes Lewis' observation that ours is an era that lionizes eros and that our literature is not full of famous friendships, or popular culture does not have friendships as famous as the names of famous lovers. Romeo and Juliet,, Antony and Cleopatra, these we know.
I would say that for anyone steeped in cartoons and childrens' stories there is another side to this. Don't we "all" know about Batman and Robin, Charlie Brown & Snoopy, Calvin & Hobbes, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble? Then there's Wallace & Gromit. Shaggy and Scooby Doo. Consider Bart Simpson and Milhouse. For that matter, moving further along, there's Kyle, Stan, Cartman and Kenny. Under the noses of most so-called "adult" story-telling cartoons have been trafficking in stories of friendship for generations but we have, as a culture, often felt that there is a need to graduate from kid-fare into "adult" entertainment. Not THAT kind of adult entertainment, the other kinds. Still, Lewis, and by extension Keller, have a point, romances are more dominant in our culture than friendships.
Moving on, when Keller discusses friendship in ancient literature, Christian and otherwise, his stops on the road of literature and philosophy emphasize friendship within the sermon. They are not digressions but necessary elements in the presentation on how Christians can and should think about friendship both within the history of Christian reflection itself and within the broader context of human experience. In this way a contextualizing episode contextualizes ideas that relate to a Christian teaching about a topic in the scriptures in a way that permits reference to historic application.
At the risk of still using Driscoll as a negative example, most of the contraversies that have brewed up about the guy have had to do with digressionary rants within sermons that are far better known than the actual sermons in which they appeared. Who out there in the general populace heard that Driscoll preached a sermon on spiritual warfare in his Luke series? Anyone? No? Well, what about the bit how Avatar is the most satanic movie Mark has ever seen? Ah, a few people heard that. What biblical text and subject was Driscoll discussing when he had that soundbite about how video games are stupid because they are the pursuit of vicarious victories that don't matter and aren't building a legacy? Anyone remember which sermon that was?
Now I'll put my cards on the table here, I'm PCA for a number of reasons and I'm not going to hide my preference for Keller style contextualization over Driscoll style contextualization. Keller brings up cultural, literary, and philosophical aspects as a way to discuss things related to biblical texts. The connection is thematic rather than purely exegetical but there's an observable connection. So if Keller talks about how the Back to the Future movies give us a message that the future is entirely in our hands so we must make it a good one in contrast to movies that discuss destiny and fate, his thread is to show that popular culture cannot resolve the question of determinism and free will and that with respect to the life of the individual believer we can't say that the Bible gives us a clear cut resolution of the question of determinism via God's sovereignty and our responsibility for our actions. The pop cultural trivia become a point from which to observe that if Christians have not resolved the freedom/determinism question how much less has the world? You remember the illustration but you also remember the point for which the illustration was brought up to begin with.
I'm afraid Driscoll is often not that far along in his skill as an orator. In the last few years Driscoll's sermon digressions have become tidal waves of personal punditry that obliterate the relevance of his actual pastoral points. This is probably due far more to the people who put soundbites and video clips of him in Mars Hill media than Driscoll's actual hour-long sermons. That is also, unfortunately, generally immaterial because the little fracases describe themselves. When Driscoll discusses Avatar as the most satanic movie he's ever seenin a sermon on spiritual warfare he's contextualizing ... but by making the focal point of his contextualizing episode what HE thinks of Avatar what he ends up contextualizing is not a scriptural teaching on, say, friendship in light of what Christians and pagans have historically thought about friendship. What Driscoll ends up contextualizing in his rants against Avatar or video games is simply himself and his opinions about cultural trends that rarely need to be brought up in the setting of an allegedly expository sermon that is just discussing what is in a biblical text.
Now I have a friend who used to be a Christian and within the last ten years one of the things he has admitted to finding insufferable about a lot of preachers, particularly in some youth pastors, is a desperate appropriation of pop culture. He heard a youth pastor say of Aragorn after Return of the King hit theaters that Aragorn was a type of Christ. Superman, somewhat famously, has been described as being a type of Christ but this just gets at how meaningless the appropriation has become. To say that so and so is like Jesus simply means that the person or thing is so famous and unobjectionable as to not be worthy of scabrous attacks within the confines of an increasingly secular civic pseudo-religion. Anyone can say these days that they respect the real Jesus but reject Christianity.
A lot of what is passed off as "contextualization" is going to be more revealing of your Netflix queue as it is any indication of whether or not you even read the Bible. More is revealed by a person attempting to say that Optimus Prime or Superman or Jack Bauer are Christ-types than is ever revealed by the stories of those three characters as manifestations of American pop culture. Sure, there may be cosmetic resemblances between three characters and stories about Jesus but as skeptics have been pointing out for millenia, there are all sorts of fascinating similarities between early Christian tales and pagan mystery religions. The atheist and the skeptic could ask whether or not these Christians who see Superman, Jack Bauer, or Optimus Prime as Christ types are seeing Jesus in those characters or whether they are seeing those characters in their own custom-built versions of Jesus.
There are, for that matter, some Christians who are more careful about getting things right with the timeline for the Star Wars expanded universe than have paid attention to the significance of Rehoboam's first major decision as king in the wake of Solomon's death. There are people who are more alert to whether Greedo shot first than to what the significance might be of Micaiah being shown by God to tell Ahab a lying spirit had been sent to Ahab's prophets. No, I'm not going to give you chapter and verse because my point is to demonstrate that if you don't already know the tale and you can keep track of all the plot twists and character arcs on Lost you're revealing where your priorities have been. I haven't even seen a whole episode of Lost. I confess my nerdiness is already well-attested and accounted for.
It's okay to know a lot about nerdy stuff if you're a Christian but if you remember episodes of Family Guy or score listings for baseball games or things like that more readily than you can grasp the history of Israel as part of the history of Christ relating to His Creation then, well, I can't really make you fix that but I can urge you to consider what stuff is being contextualized for the sake of what. If there is any tragic flaw in the way some pastors "contextualize" it's that they do not impart for their church members a zeal for the scriptures themselves but a willingness to defend their pastors ultimately forgettable digressions on pop culture. Don't defend your pastor's cultural trivial pursuits, don't defend your pastor's rabbit trails into personal and cultural anecdotes. What will last are not the stories about the pastor's kids or the movies or books or video games or restaurants your pastor does or doesn't like. When your pastor (or mine) stands before the throne of Christ what's going to matter is what the pastor said about Him.
What if you, as a pastor, stood before Jesus' throne and Jesus asked you if you ever used the pulpit as a pretext for making fun of things you don't like? What would you say? You'd have to plead guilty, first of all, and second you'd have to consider whether or not the use of the pulpit and the privilege of expounding the scriptures to those who need to hear the words of life was worth taking that liberty. Now I'm not hiding my frequent disagreement with a guy like John MacArthur but I'm willing to say that on this particular subject he and I are probably in some agreement.
But there are two edges to this blade. Jesus can look at you and ask if you preached only Him or if you also preached Jack Bauer or golf or whatever other things you liked. But Jesus can also ask if you preached only His words instead of preaching against your dislike of The Simpsons or Family Guy or Desperate Housewives or light beer or vegetarians or Republicans or Democrats. As David Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it half a century ago, there will come a point where your being opposed to communism will not prove that you are in any way actually a follower of Christ. Being opposed to "contextualization" is the same way. My salvation and yours does not depend, thank God, on whether or not the words of so many forgettable and forgotten preachers went this way or that. He must become greater and greater and we must become less and less.
Then again I'm not a pastor, hope never to be, and perhaps don't know what I'm talking about.