While I was home in the US, a church group asked me to speak on issues in translation. They prepared a set of questions they had. One was:
Is contextualization good or bad?
In missions, contextualization is making the message of the Gospel fit the context. Translating the Bible into the language of the people is a form of contextualization. Translation takes the message and makes it fit that language.
Contextualization is usually understood as a set of deliberate steps taken by the person presenting the Gospel. But it is also what hearers do consciously or unconsciously. When people hear something new, they fit it into their context, clarifying or distorting the meaning.
It also happens for everything, not just for the Gospel. A good example is the push for democracy in Africa. One of my Ghanaian friends has noted that:
We live in a part of the world where the elected become the bosses and the voters become the servants.
So democracy has been contextualized in Africa in ways that my friend and other Africans find undemocratic. No one planned this. It just happened. Those who pushed for democracy didn’t take care to see that it was properly contextualized. Now there needs to be a deliberate process to contextualize it differently.
The quote on the right by Michael Ventura gets it almost right. A piece of information is like a dot that floats in the brain of the hearer without meaning until it is connected with other dots. But it cannot stay like that.
It doesn’t float around in the brain without any meaning. Instead the hearer tries to make sense of it, attaches it to other dots and makes a meaning – right or wrong. If the person giving the information doesn’t connect the dot of information correctly to other dots, the hearer will connect it however he or she can. Anyone communicating into another culture who does not pay attention to contextualizing their message is leaving the interpretation of that message entirely in the hands of the hearers. The results might not be what the person wants. You can’t keep the Gospel pure by avoiding contextualization. It’s the other way around.
Some of the translations I have been associated with are being done in places where there was a church for some time prior to the translation being done. When Christians finally have the Bible in their language, they usually find they a number of places where the Gospel message was distorted. The translation effort becomes a process by which the Gospel is contextualized differently – this time more accurately. When they read a passage and exclaim, “Now I understand”, it is often not just that the message is now clear; it is also that the message has now been correctly connected to their context, it now fits; it can now be integrated into their life (context).
In one case, a colleague was working in a language where the people had been evangelized for decades, but they did not have the Bible in their language. He found that the word being used for the manger in which Jesus was laid meant a fancy baby bed. After all, that’s what missionaries used for their babies. The people had nothing like a manger. So the Christmas story got contextualized in a way that distorted it so that Jesus was put in the kind of bed used by the top 1% of the population. My colleague asked what container people used for food for goats or chickens. They responded with a word for a certain kind of basket. When that was put in the Christmas story it had quite an impact. Jesus wasn’t put in the kind of baby bed used by the top 1% of the population, but rather in a bed even poor people would not ordinarily use. It was an eye-opener. Jesus was connected to their context.
That connection is why translations of the Bible into the languages of Ghana have been shown to produce positive changes in behavior even in places where there were churches for decades before the translation.
When I was asked if contextualization is good or bad, I answered: “Yes, but mostly it’s inevitable.”