Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gopsel in a Pluralist Society

I have created a blog of resources where I plan to do most my book reviews leaving this space for things that are more authentic to my own creativity. However, since it has been so long since I last posted, I thought I would post a few quick reviews from my summer reading and make a few personal notes extrapolating on the material. I begin with a book I first read close to 10 years ago in an undergraduate class at Lipscomb University.

Lesslie Newbigin has become a very significant contributor to the area of missiology. Our intern who worked with me this summer is forgoing her sophomore year at Eastern Michigan University to pursue a mission program she will begin sometime in 2009. My hope was to expose her to some perspectives in missions that she had not previously been exposed to, in order to help her discern her direction in the mission field. So, we spent a good part of the summer working through what is probably Newbigin’s best-known book.

The first half of the book is quite tedious. Newbigin weighs through much philosophy relying heavily on Michael Polanyi’s work to ground his direction. He has an interesting perspective to provide as an Englishman, he lived in India for 40 years and thus is in the unique perspective to be able to critique his own culture. He tells the great story of walking into a Hindu temple in India and seeing the many gods they idolized – including Jesus. Every year, on Christmas, they would pay homage to Jesus and pray to him. Newbigin pointed out the error-ridden syncretism of this practice and acknowledged that this is not even a beginning point for the Gospel. It led him to ask the many places in his own culture he has practiced syncretism. It’s easy to see from the outside looking in, but from the inside – where does that leave him?

A key for Newbigin is seeing that the Christian faith is already at work within all cultures. He speaks very firmly against the concept of “bringing Christ to the nations,” and instead seeks a paradigm shift that aims to “reveal the Christ already at work within the nations.” This is a significant paradigmatic shift. This perspective affirms what we already say we believe – the Bible is universal, transcending culture and time. We should avoid the feeling of needing to “civilize” the nations or bring other (usually) Western traditions to the land, but instead see how Christ fits into the people who are already there. Missions is at the core of who we are as Christians – “It follows that the test of our real belief is our readiness to share it with all peoples” (p. 126)

Another aspect of the shift Newbigin proposes has to do with moving from declaratory solely, and acknowledging the role is performatively as well – “The true missionary dialogue, in other words, is not initiated by the Church. In a secondary sense it is initiated by the outsider who is drawn to ask: What is the secret of this new reality, this life of praise, of justice, of peace?” (p. 134).

Chapter 12 moves to the heart of what Newbiggin is address: contextualization – understanding the culture is key, embedding oneself in it is the priority. Described this way: “How can the gospel ‘come alive’ in all these different cultural contexts, and still be the same authentic gospel? That is the problem of contextualization.” (p. 142) We must realize that everything we do is conditioned by our culture. The very act of communication is conditioned by culture, leaving us with the tedious but vital task of weighing the substance of our faith – what is Christ, what is culture? Some highlights from what I feel is the most significant chapter:

“There is no such thing as a pure gospel if by that is meant something which is not embodied in a culture . . . The gospel always comes as the testimony of a community which, if it is faithful, is trying to live out the meaning of the gospel in a certain style of life, certain ways of holding property, of maintaining law and order, of carrying on production and consumption, and so on. Every interpretation of the gospel is embodied in some cultural form.” (p. 144)

“We must always be ready to recognize that we have misrepresented the intention of Jesus because of our own interests.” (p. 151) – Just chew on that one for awhile. That’s a tough one, but really important one to swallow.

One of my favorite lines: “The content of the gospel is Jesus Christ in the fullness of his ministry, death, and resurrection. The gospel is this and not anything else.” (p. 153)

From there Newbiggin addresses some anticipated challenges when the Gospel confronts new cultural barriers (specifically the relationship between Christianity and other religions – he critiques John Hick’s pluralism and especially finds Karl Rahner’s “Anonymous Christian” a plausible alternative (something I’ve written on here before). This is definitely not the strength of Newbigin’s work, but is a helpful sidebar in considering the breadth of issues within the construct of missiology.

This is not the best review of Newbigin’s work, but hopefully gives those of you who are unfamiliar with him a taste of what his perspective is. He has a shorter and more concise volume entitled Foolishness to the Greeks (which might be more advantageous to read as a first-time intro to Newbigin. As the Western world continues to further in is pluralism, the work of Newbign has become more and more significant as we have realized the concept of contextualization is not simply an overseas issue, but simply moving from the East coast to the West coast, from rural farms to inner city concrete gardens, from immigrant populations to the increasing minority numbers, and many, many demographics in between – contextualization is a vital first step in our aims of evangelism.

OK, hopefully the others will be a little shorter . . .

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