Having made the observation that what is rational in one culture is often weak and irrational in another, as Christian evangelists, we are left in awkward place. On the one hand, when we speak as missionaries to people of other cultures—whether in Egypt or Hyde Park—we probably want to be understood. We feel like we should commend the gospel to them in a way that will appeal to their rationality, using arguments that will be convincing to them. After all, do we not want to become all things to all men so that by all means we will win some (1 Cor 9:22)?
But most of us, I suspect, will recoil a little bit at the prospect of debate and dialogue in the form that is common in much of the Middle Eastern world. Some of this no doubt is cultural stigma on our part. Most of us just aren’t used to the idea of shouting down our opponents in public debate until our views are seen by all to have won. Is our goal in evangelism really to see Christ honoured, even among those who deny him? Should we, as Christians, pick up our placards and march every time Hollywood produces a movie that shames Christ? (After all, how dare they!?) But as much as we want to see Christ honoured, there’s something a little bit anomalous about commending in this way the one who was humbled in flesh, betrayed by his friends, handed over to his enemies, rejected, spat upon, flogged, beaten, stripped and put to death with criminals. After all, he taught us that the meek will inherit the earth, and he told us to turn the other cheek, pick up our cross and follow him. Shall we now go about demanding that he be seen to be honoured and exalted in the sphere of public opinion? Or even worse, shall Christian’s demand that we be seen that way?
It seems that Christian missionaries are destined to speak at cross purposes. The gospel, by its very nature, is foolish in the ears of a Muslim. Not foolish like it is to a westerner—it’s foolish to us as well. But at least we in the west have a long cultural heritage of Christian thought to fall back on. Western culture, by virtue of whatever shred of Christian heritage remains, understands the virtue of loving self-sacrifice, it understands the dignity of humility, and it knows what it means to lay down one’s life for the benefit of another. The concept of a crucified God is not completely ludicrous to western ears. But for a Muslim, can you even begin to imagine the offense of the cross? Can you even start to hear through their ears the Christian who claims that the creator God who made the heavens and the earth, the transcendent Lord of the universe, became man—more, became a servant!—and humbled himself, and allowed his own creatures to shame him in the most public, visible, excruciating way possible? Foolishness. It’s irrational. Allah wins.
Yet it’s really not tenable to argue any other way. Christians argue from a position of weakness and meekness, because it’s a position congruent with the message we proclaim. There is a valuable missiological lesson to be learned here. There’s a time to “become all things to all men,” but not always. Sometimes, what at first glance appears to be something western, that we might give up for the sake of the gospel, on closer examination could prove to be a result of the gospel itself.
Missionaries are these days blatantly aware of the mistakes our forebears have made in this regard. Review any history of missions and you will quickly notice that missionaries of the past have very often failed to distinguish between what was gospel and what was just culture. We have insisted that people become western before they can become Christian. We have demanded that people become “civilized” before they come to church. However well intentioned (and however much God graciously used the missionary efforts despite their failings), much of what passed as mission was ultimately a form of cultural imperialism.
But these days the pendulum has well and truly swung back. The western self-loathing has pushed us so far that we do not now believe that western missionaries have anything valuable to say. Everything we say is tainted with the west, and many even within the church don’t believe in the task of mission at all. But perhaps sometimes we fail to realize that some things we think are just western are actually Christian. It’s true that western culture isn’t Christian culture, and that the gospel is not western. But it’s also true that the west has been shaped for 2000 years by thinkers who worked in a vaguely Christian milieu.1 The west is post-Christian, and not post-something else. Might it be possible that we have something to unashamedly contribute to God’s people who haven’t enjoyed this heritage?
- A good read on this is Hart, David Bentley. Atheist Delusions : The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. ↩