When the subject of contextualization arises, conversation takes on a theoretical tone. God’s people bringing the gospel message to the ends of the earth eventually face real life issues of living and communicating in all new contexts. So rather than belabor the point of this discussion, I offer a personal instance for discussion, which remains hypothetical for you the reader but allows me to interface with an experience, so that when I offer my Framework for Approaching Contextualization the discussion has a real and hopefully interesting context to stimulate our contemplation. This discussion has two parts, so that thoughtful interaction with the given situation occurs between the two postings, as well as an expectancy of how you might finish out the Framework in order to adequately deal with this particular instance.
Can worship of Jesus sound from a human femur?
A local church in the Himalayas wondered about various traditional worship instruments being “redeemed” from worship of idols and demons to now play praise songs to their Creator and Savior. Namely the discussion was in regard to a traditional horn fashioned from a human femur bone. This horn, “kangling” (“kang-leg + ling-flute) or “leg flute,” has been used for centuries in religious ceremonies and can be read about at length in various texts on Tibetan Buddhism or Tantric Buddhism should you choose to do so at your leisure beyond reading this post.
Rather than answering a simple “Yes” or “No,” I struggled to respond with questions and discussion between myself and the wonderful and sincere brothers. They are leaders in their church, who will be taking whatever we discuss to their friends and families. More importantly they will go from this discussion and seek to worship our God in spirit and truth, and they will lead others in that worship! Working out contextualization in community offers a significant point of helping disciples learn how to apply the Bible to life, precisely as fulfillment of the Great Commission to be discipled and make disciples in all that Jesus taught.
Framework for Approaching Contextualization
The following offers several questions to be answered by those dealing with an issue. The questions do not seek to provide the answers but a means for approaching a situation and advancing toward the resolution.
Every situation of applying the Bible to life is within a particular context; therefore, God’s people should realize they live out contextualization, which is often assumed and unintentional on our part having grown up within a particular context.
As people bring the gospel to new contexts—either overseas or even at times simply across the street—the gospel message again meets contextual dynamics of perception and understanding before being applied to the realities of life in this new context. The missionary engaging a new culture must always realize their position as someone from a context they assume and are at times unaware of, all the while ministering in a context completely obvious to them yet assumed by the local peoples. Regarding the femur flute and its context: Imagine bringing such an “instrument” to Sunday service in North Carolina: how long before screams and panic sets in as the audience attempts to assure themselves that this thing surely is not a human bone! I had not heard of the kangling before encountering this church in the Himalayas. As my patient and gracious friends explained their people’s traditional instrument and its usage, I was able to better grasp what was involved with their inquiry. I began to think through my own perspective, my immediate gut reaction. Also I asked more and more questions about the instrument, its typical meaning, importance, and use. The answers to these questions from the brothers helped us both see the broader situation of this discussion.
Contextualization involves theology, our understanding of God; therefore, God’s people should ask which Christian doctrines are likely affected by or speak to the possible answer to a situation.
As we initially think through the contextual issue, we should begin thinking through which particular doctrines are most impacted by the issue or most closely related to and helpful for thinking through an answer. Regarding the femur flute and its context: Initially I wondered to myself “What would God think of his people ‘playing’ a femur flute?,” but then I wondered what God’s people would think of their own worship? I was thinking: we need a doctrine of worship in helping disciples in church formation. In introducing the doctrine of humanity, I asked the brothers to think about what might be involved in using an instrument made from a human body part. What does it communicate to God and to others about our view and God’s view of humanity, if we are using human body parts in our worship services of God? Before we fellow Westerners think too dismissal of answering, think of Jesus’ last dinner with his disciples! Consider the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper/Holy Communion: “this is my body. . . this is my blood. . . ” Lest we consider the questions regarding “using human body parts in our worship of God” to be a ridiculous or abhorrent question, let us understand the integral element of our worship now, which involves to some degree an aspect of the human body.
Also think of the reality that the human body is used in all of our worship: prayer, singing, thinking upon God, standing, kneeling, even prostrate perhaps, what we do with our hands during worship or testifying or a hand-raising gesture in response to a call or comment of the teacher of the Word of God. Baptism is a whole-body expression of worship and discipleship. So let us be mindful of how the Doctrine of Humanity instructs our understanding of using the human body to worship in spirit—in the right motivation—and in truth—in accordance with all of God’s Word and character. Perhaps this femur flute situation is not as straightforward as we first thought! How would you resolve the situation? What further elements of a Framework would you assert? What do you think will be the end result of this discussion with our brothers?
Can worship of Jesus sound from a human femur?
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