The Difficulties of Contextualizing God

Several major Bible translators in the past few years have toyed with the idea of creating Bibles for use in the Muslim world that do not refer to God as “Father” or Jesus as “Son.”  The idea is that these labels for God are very offensive to Muslims who would never conceive of God has having physical relations and producing a son, thus the use of “Father” and “Son” may be hindering Muslims from coming to the faith.  You can get a brief sense of the controversy by reading this news article here.  By the way, as far as I can tell there are Christians from the Muslim world and not from the Muslim world on both sides of the debate.

Who is God? Well, you see, He’s kind of like … Well, I mean He … Hmmmmmmmm …

Honestly, my first thought was: “Um, we have the same exact problem in our culture — in any culture, really.”  I mean, we have to explain to Christians in America that Jesus isn’t the Son of God in the same way that I am my father’s son.  We have to explain that a Father-Son relationship is an image of the relationship between two members of the Trinity that God decided to use in helping us gain a little understanding into something beyond our comprehension.  I can’t think of a single culture where you wouldn’t have to have some sort of follow up conversation after using the terms Father and Son.  Apparently, though, this is a particularly big deal in Muslim contexts? I certainly have no expertise from which to speak on the issue.

If you were Luke Skywalker, you would call all of these men, “Father.”  Confused yet?

This is hardly the only controversy in recent years revolving around how to contextualize the concept of God.  A few years ago William Young started many a conversation inside and outside of the Church with his novel, The Shack.  In part because Young wanted to explore his main character’s issues with his own father, Young portrayed God the Father as an African-American woman for most of the story.  More recently Rob Bell chose to portray God through the prism of love in his book Love Wins, and ended up taking some flack from those who felt his portrayal of a loving God was more of a caricature made at the expense of a more nuanced and robust understanding of God’s self-revelation.  There are even new fields of theological scholarship challenging us to rethink God within the contexts of feminism, liberation theology, or queer theory.

And, of course, the much more popular “Beer Theory.”

Contextualization has to happen, of course.  The biggest problem is simply the transcendental “otherness” of God.  We can’t fully understand God.  We have no point of reference, and the limitations of the human experience make it impossible.  So God revealed Himself, most notably through His Son Jesus Christ, choosing to grant us a limited understanding of Himself in order for us to have a relationship with Him.  The other reason contextualization is necessary is because the human experience is in constant flux.  Culture and even language are always changing.  “The Lord is my Shepherd” was a beautiful way to express the tender care of God to a rural society.  Here in industrial America we can still grasp the general idea, but we have to do some studying on shepherds and sheep (and how shepherding was practiced in ancient times) to fully appreciate this contextualized self-revelation of God.

“The Lord is my …” Oh, I see what happened here.

The same things that made contextualization so necessary, however, are the same things that should make us exercise extreme caution when doing so.  We have to look outside of our own culture to make sure we sufficiently understand the culture to which the original revelation was given so that we can then convey it to a third culture (which we also have to make sure we understand), but we also have to look “upward,” if you will, to make sure that we sufficiently understand the intended conveyance of that original revelation!

The translators who have decided to stop using “Father” and “Son” have a difficult task ahead of them.  It goes beyond trying to find similar words or concepts in these Muslim cultures that will express the same thing without causing offense.  They also have to decide exactly what God intended to convey when He revealed Himself in part as “Father” and “Son” (not to even get at the fact that these are masculine terms and I keep calling God, “He!).  Will the new terms not only “make sense” in a Muslim context, but will they also faithfully convey God’s limited self-revelation? Are the difficulties that will arise in choosing new terms really less significant than the difficulties in trying to redeem the old terms?

I think we just made things worse …

Again, I don’t know enough about the particular difficulties involved in conveying Christianity to Muslims to have any answers along these lines.  But I’m asking myself these questions because, in truth, I face the same task of contextualization.  How do I speak of God to the churched vs. the unchurched?  How do I choose to interpret and explain various offensive passages which offend various groups of people for various reasons?  I’ve spoken about God with Americans and Chinese.  I’ve shared the gospel in English and in Spanish.  Each time I speak about God I have to make sure that I understand the limited revelation given by God, as well as the particular confusions or hang-ups I’m likely to encounter sharing God based on others’ own contexts and experiences.

The difficulties faced by these translators are a good reminder to any who speak about the God revealed through Scripture and ultimately through Jesus Christ: be sensitive in how you share, but also make sure you are sharing faithfully.

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