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Cultural Transpositions: A Review of Culture, Inculturation, and Theologians

March 15, 2011

Gerald A. Arbuckle, Culture, Inculturation, and Theologians: A Postmodern Critique (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2010).

What do Christians means when we talk about contextualization and inculturation? What is involved in this process? In this book, Gerald Arbuckle, co-director of Refounding and Pastoral Development in Sydney, Australia, offers some answers to these questions, but first he tackles the notoriously difficult idea of culture. In contrast to classical, modern, and postmodern definitions of culture, Arbuckle defines culture as a pattern of meanings encased in symbols, narrative, and rituals articulating the correct way to think, feel, and act (17). Culture is created and enacted in social dramas in particular places that produce patterns of meaning. What does it mean, then, for Christianity to be performed in different contexts? According to Arbuckle, this is a difficult question that requires “passionate collaborative efforts” and people who “possess boundless faith, imagination and creativity” (137).

In order to discover guidance for inculturation, Arbuckle looks first to the example of Jesus. By examining a variety of texts, he observes that inculturation happens through a process that is personal, collaborative, liberating, inquisitive, dialogical, respectful of diversity, and replete with storytelling (154-64). Above all, inculturation is about listening, being open to a particular context and willing to be transformed. In other words, inculturation happens when the Christian faith is incarnated in a particular culture, not simply when we allow enhance the core of our faith (168). It does not mean mere embellishment, but the transformation of lives and cultures. Arbuckle articulates several foundational truths that guide this process: the Holy Spirit is the source of truth, there are no normative cultures, inculturation involves all of life, inculturation is incarnational, and inculturation happens by the church as a people not an organization (169-71).

Arbuckle then summarizes two typical models for conceiving of inculturation. On the one hand, a translation model identifies a supracultural core of truth that is then translated into another context. On the other hand, an anthropological model identifies no enduring core and lifts all conditions on dialogue in order to discover truth together (174-75). Arbuckle, himself an anthropologist, prefers the latter model, and emphasizes that despite obvious obstacles such a confusion over meaning and desire for control, Christians must embrace syncretism and let go of endless clamoring after a supracultural, “pure Christianity” (184).

Is Arbuckle right? Is cultural syncretism the best way forward in the process of Christian contextualization and inculturation? While I appreciate many of Arbuckle’s insights, particularly his emphasis on responsive awareness as the essence of inculturation, I think his model is mistaken and believe that Christians can continue to hold a core gospel or “rule of faith” despite the dynamic and necessary process of inculturation. What might be a better model for this process?

One of the reasons I posted this review on Transpositions is that I think one option for a better model comes from the arts and corresponds to the name of this blog: transpositions. Transpose is a multivalent word, but one primary meaning comes from music and refers to the preservation of the same musical arrangement of melody and harmony in a different key. When applied to the process of inculturation, therefore, transposition refers to performing the same tune in a different cultural key. Kevin Vanhoozer in The Drama of Doctrine suggested “transposition” as an appropriate model for faithful and fitting performance of the gospel drama in new situation (260). When the gospel enters different cultures, we do not compose an original performance, but transpose the gospel into that context (254).

For Vanhoozer, cultural transposition is a matter of finding an expression of Christian belief and behavior that is fitting to both the canon and different cultural contexts. I think cultural transposition is a much more appropriate model than what Arbuckle proposes, but I also think it is a bit more complex than Vanhoozer admits. Rather than a bi-dimension transposition between the canon and culture, I propose that cultural transposition is more multi-dimensional process involving fittingness to the triune God, Scripture, tradition, relationship with Christians and non-Christians, and the created and cultural order of particular locations.

If Christians are to be faithful to our calling to be in the world but not of the world, we must become skillful at transposing Christian belief and behavior into every cultural key.

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