We must contextualize the gospel so the world can comprehend it
I wrote this letter for Lori Tsutsui, a math and science teacher who sometimes doubles as my tutor.
You’re intelligent. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn you were always ahead of your class, but your intellect isn’t merely genetic. You’ve studied. You’ve applied yourself. You’ve taken life’s experiences, teachers, and opportunities to develop your mental acumen, and your entire way of looking at the world has shifted as a result.
But you’re not overly enamored with intelligence. You realize our ability to comprehend is finite in the face of God’s infinite wisdom. You understand that many of our leading hypotheses for how space and time interrelate will likely be replaced in the coming decades. You have an awareness of the frailty of our collective scientific outlook, and thus you are capable of believing in things we do not yet have the ability to prove.
Do you remember trying to teach me quantum mechanics in the offices at Westwinds? We stood in front of my whiteboard for over two hours, while you tried to make the basic concepts simpler and simpler so my theological mind could grasp what your mathematical mind considered elementary. You kept dumbing things down, finding new ways to explain the same conceptual building blocks, often chuckling as you exclaimed “I can’t believe you’re not getting this.”
That memory is the impetus for what I’m writing now. You were engaged, scientifically, in the same process in which I’m often involved theologically. You were trying to find ways for the uninitiated to understand.
In my field, we call that contextualization.
Usually, when I’m in gatherings of pastors, the moment I use that term there is a collective eye-roll. It’s as though I have invoked some taboo that will castrate the cross and dry out the baptismal. The assumption is that by “contextualization” what I really mean is “telling people what they want to hear.” The danger, so they say, is that I will lower the bar of Christian discipleship so far that those who call themselves Christians will not resemble the witness of the Second Testament in any meaningful fashion.
But that’s not what I’m doing. To return to our shared-memory of the whiteboard, my criticism of many churches is that they aren’t patiently standing next to our culture trying to help them understand. They’re just throwing scientific textbooks at the world and becoming angrier that the world isn’t interested in learning.
When the books of the Second Testament were finally translated into koine Greek, the gospel spread like wildfire. Koine was the common tongue of the Roman Empire, and once people could access the gospel story in a way they could understand it, the gospel took hold of their imagination, their passion, and ultimately their allegiance.
We must contextualize the gospel message. This doesn’t mean telling people what they want to hear; it means telling people what God has already said in a way they understand, find compelling, and must ultimately decide to reject or accept. It means finding ways to write on the whiteboard until our friends, neighbors, families, and peers finally begin to grasp the power of God’s story. That doesn’t mean they will always like God’s story, or even find it compelling; but they have to—at the very least—understand it.
Your patience with me has yielded far greater results than a small increase in my scientific understanding. You’ve given me the gift of figuring out how difficult it is to be indoctrinated into another way of thinking.
Even the basics require patience, not just from the student, but also from the teacher.