Tell Me Not a Story: Contextualisation and Indian Church

Contextualisation was originally a concern of the Western missionaries. Culturally conscientious ones among them were aware of the overwhelming cultural and racial differences that stood like an unsurmountable wall between them and the recipients of their message. But the wall could be scaled if not brought down. Transformation of appearance was the first step of the possible ladder. Robert De Nobili (1577–1656), the remarkable Italian missionary to Kerala and Tamil Nadu, took that most radical step when he dressed up as Brahmin, shaved his head and wore saffron while going around evangelising the learned Indians. The threat that comes with foreignness was seemingly mitigated. Other steps included learning the language and familiarising oneself with the literary culture of the people. De Nobili, the Roman Catholic pioneer, too learnt Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit. He immersed himself in the religious and whatever existed of the secular literature in those languages. The ladder was called contextualisation. It was all noble. A few Roman Catholic missionaries followed his lead including the maverick Brahmabandhav Upadhyay (1861–1907) of Bengal, who wished to establish an order of Indian Christian sanyasis and who promoted the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. But this “contextualisation” remained a minor, though a steady, stream within the Roman Catholic Church.

Protestant missionaries too became adept in the local languages and literature. But by and large they stuck to their distinctive habits of dressing and eating. Protestant Indians were not radically experimental either. Sadhu Sundar Singh (1889–1929) remained a bit of an exception.

What could be considered a legitimate Western-missionary concern is fraught with certain oddities when Indian Christians let themselves be led, as if by their noses, by this missiological compulsion called contextualisation. After all, why does one need a ladder when one is already on the inner side of the wall? But the slow church growth—and in many cases stagnation—must be blamed on something. “Our appearance and way of doing things are very Western and hence we must contextualise” is now a familiar refrain. “Let’s contextualise.”

While some genuine efforts have been made to make one’s church look more “Indian”, the contextual approach is often ambivalent—symbols, icons, accoutrements give a visual impression of Indianness but one is subconsciously aware that this is merely mise en scène, a setting. … Additionally, contextualisation, in most cases, privileges the “high culture” of the dominant section of the society.

Contextualisation seeks to dust off from Christian faith the lingering influences of the West, which in these postcolonial times is supposed to be carried out by Indian Christian community. The worship service, the liturgy, the architecture, even the habits of the clergy must be dissociated from any resemblance to those seen in the Western churches.

While some genuine efforts have been made to make one’s church look more “Indian”, the contextual approach is often ambivalent—symbols, icons, accoutrements give a visual impression of Indianness but one is subconsciously aware that this is merely mise en scène, a setting. Pastors often tend to employ this approach more as a strategy for church growth rather than making it an honest expression of their own convictions. Additionally, contextualisation, in most cases, privileges the “high culture” of the dominant section of the society.

Some sensitive pastors go beyond appearance and seek to touch the soul of the culture. They seek to make the content of the gospel more accessible by incarnating it in a new form. We have retellings of the gospel in the literary framework of the puranas, the mahakavyas and other such religio-poetic genres. This undoubtedly has led to creation of a rich Indian Christian literature, which must be treasured, studied and celebrated by the church. Creativity is a gift of God and the church will ignore this body of work at its own peril. However, these works, valuable as they are, have not been able to draw much attention even among the contextualisation enthusiasts. Gurram Jashuva’s (1897 – 1971) Telugu masterpiece Kreestu Charitra won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1964, but it’s a travesty that it is not available in English translation for other Indian Christians to read even after more than half a century of its publication.

The more serious problem with contextually oriented literary efforts is that postmodern Christians wish to turn the gospel into stories—Yeshu Katha or Kroos ki Katha. In fact, they downplay literacy and focus on orality. They tend to think that Bible must be marketed as a story book before it makes an impact in a culture that is steeped in myths and stories. Interestingly, this development coincides with West’s recently found love for storytelling and a distaste for theologising. That irony aside, storytelling hampers the growth of a genuine Christian community in India because it seeks to imitate the format of kathavachan, in which an itinerant guru, a star speaker, goes from city to city telling stories but does not take the responsibility of the listeners, as a shepherd would do with this sheep. In short, a storyteller cannot be a pastor. The context of the local church as an abiding community of the faithful in which the Christian character is formed is neglected.

But can a pastor or an evangelist not use the technique of storytelling? This innocent-sounding question fails to notice that preachers have always used narratives and narrative methods while communicating their message. What is peculiar in the contemporary thrust on storytelling is the philosophical baggage it carries. It celebrates orality, emotionalism and a certain kind of immediacy. Since oral culture precedes writing, emotional reaction comes before rational cognition and story makes the meaning immediately clear, storytelling, they say, must be the dominant mode of our missionary and pastoral communication; written word, intellectual reflection, and struggle with difficult passages must be avoided. Storytelling, in this way, ends up infantilising the non-Western cultures. These cultures, they say, need an indulgent grandmother and not a shepherd that leads, guides and rebukes his flock.

What is peculiar in the contemporary thrust on storytelling is the philosophical baggage it carries. It celebrates orality, emotionalism and a certain kind of immediacy. … Written word, intellectual reflection, and struggle with difficult passages must be avoided. Storytelling, in this way, ends up infantilising the non-Western cultures. These cultures, they say, need an indulgent grandmother and not a shepherd that leads, guides and rebukes his flock.

This is where the idea of contextualisation becomes gravely problematic. The organised church itself is seen as a residue of the Western influence. Many of the intellectually gifted Christians have unwittingly taken contextualisation to build a kind of churchless Christianity. There are many who speak derisively of “churchianity”. They envisage a new community which dispenses with the “church” and relocates itself on the promised land of a storyteller’s narrative genius.

Church, however, remains the only context within—and through—which the gospel will usher the kingdom of God in India. India is not only multicultural but also deeply hierarchical, where every individual carries the burden—or privilege—of his or her social status. That is the context in which the gospel is to be shared—a context where mythology and stories have been used to maintain status quo; myths explain and justify hierarchy and not abolish it. Besides, they are far more attractive than any of the stories a new-age evangelist may want to tell. A lot more than stories is needed to break the spell of the myths over our people. We need a church that encourages biblical reflection on the causes of multipronged backwardness of our nation and its citizens.

Church is the only hope to build a truly national community because a church is organised to achieve a genuine and profound equality among men. It promotes literacy, thinking, and disciplines the congregation to submit to doctrinal and moral demands of the Word. A church strengthens the weak and teaches the strong to be humble. It teaches men to be accountable. It gives them the safety net when their own resources are meagre. This happens when members of a church, who may otherwise belong to the warring social factions, live out the message of love, hope and faith as they are continually challenged by the truth of the Scripture. This happens when they scrutinise the narratives that govern their lives under the searchlight of the gospel.

Any effort to make gospel truly contextual, truly relevant in India must before anything else be intensely conscious of what divides Indians, what causes them social and economic disadvantages, what hampers their self-development. And answers to these questions lie outside the scope of any storytelling.

4 comments
  1. “why does one need a ladder when one is already on the inner side of the wall?” Thanks for asking such a pertinent question. For it to begin to be answered we (all of us) will need an honest introspection.

    Yesterday was the second Sunday in the last 2 to 3 months where we addressed some of the questions of our youth. It was not in a lecture format, but rather we sat in a circle and listened to one another and discussed the questions. The youth have questions concerning their context and I guess this too is contextualization.

    One of the questions was that given the changes and advancement in the world, is the Bible still relevant, considering it was written in an ancient and alien time? In discussing this one of the points was that – if our approach to the Bible is that of a rule book to be followed then the question of its relevance and the need to contextualize its message will always come up. However, if the Bible is through which we experience God, not only speaking directly to our hearts through it, but also giving us the words to express our deepest feelings towards God, then the Bible will always be relevant.

    I think what was being said was that sharing an intellectual message needs contextualization whereas sharing an experience probably overcomes that, in that you can say with the blind man in John 9:25 “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Yes, the image of sitting together in a group in an interactive setting is the kind of “contextualisation” we need—questioning and counter-questioning.

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