This piece is written primarily for the benefit of my grad students who are taking an online class, Gospel and Cultures. I think it’s pretty important stuff for all of us to think about though. So, you get to read it as well. You might even decide to get a master’s degree in missional leadership and take more courses like this.
A few assumptions to get us all on the same page:
1) The gospel is cultural. Put another way, the gospel and things cultural are not two separate things. The gospel is always communicated in human language and in relationship to the local setting in which it is being performed. This is a part of the genius of Christianity. For the gospel to be news for all, it has to be news in each time and place. So, Christians have always been willing to translate biblical documents into another language, find places of connection and belonging in within local frameworks of understanding, and to create fresh metaphors and images to further explain the meaning of the good news.
2) The gospel is more than a message. It is a way of mediating the relationship between the church and others. That is, the church is true to its intentions in the world when it stays primarily in the mode of good news. This is a different kind of relationship than one imagined around terms like “truth,” or “mystery,” or “glory.” It moves differently and creates different kinds of relationships with those it encounters.
Another part of this is that in the Bible, the gospel typically refers to the announcement of an event. This makes sense given the fact that gospel means “good news.” This event, seen most clearly in the death and resurrection of Jesus, continues in the lives of others who are “crucified with Christ,” or who have taken up their crosses to follow him. The gospel, then, is the continuing performance of a certain story within every cultural setting.
3)Recent understandings of the term culture have emphasized less a settled understanding of how things are shared by all participants in a local setting. We are accustomed, for instance, of talking about “the culture” as if it is one thing, a unified whole. Instead, current students of culture know that we exist simultaneously in several different cultural realities at once and that these are often times in competing relationships with each other. Given that we live amid contested cultural claims, greater emphasis is given now in cultural studies to how culture is produced–cultural modes of production. Who makes culture? What are the sources of power in cultural production and who has access to those?
Ok, we’re all caught up, right? Here’s where I want to bring these two things together in this post. The Christian gospel is very concerned about social location. Jesus is crucified, for instance, outside the cities gates in a place of dishonor and shame. The writer of Hebrews encourages us to “go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but are seeking a city that is to come” (Heb 13:13-14).
This is not an isolated move in Scripture. Deuteronomy is insistent that the story of possession of the land not be equated with words like “deserve,” or “great,” or “favorite.” Instead, Israel is reminded again and again that their chosen status is related precisely to the fact that they were the least of all nations and that their provision in the land comes only by gift.
Jesus comes into the world in a specific place. He is born in a barn in Bethlehem. He is not born in privilege in Jerusalem or Rome or another center of power. Mary knows that the birth of God’s annointed comes through her “lowly circumstances” and is a sign that God is exalting the lowly and bringing the proud down from their thrones. His brothers and sisters are “the least of these.”
Jesus’ ministry begins in Galilee, not Judea. His movement begins and ends at the fringes, at the margins of society. He eats with tax collectors and sinners and sends the rich away empty. The biblical story is relentless in this way. God has a cultural strategy. He is not concerned primarily with being “relevant.” Rather, God’s way in the world is always first with those who have been excluded or marginalized. He creates among them a new way of belonging–a belonging with God–that allows those who were not a people to make new meaning as God’s people.
If the gospel is a certain kind of cultural performance, its natural setting is always at the margins. The story it performs is that of the Son of God, the one who gave up privilege for the sake of becoming like us–a slave, experiencing death, even death on a cross.