Editor’s note: TC contributor Shiao Chong was recently appointed editor of The Banner, a sister ministry of ours within the Christian Reformed Church. His thoughts on cultural engagement in his first editorial also nicely capture how we strive to approach things here at TC, so we thought we’d share an abridged version of his original piece.
To help us envision a way for Christians to navigate today’s cultural winds, I’d like to use the metaphor of flying a kite.
For the Christian kite to fly properly, it needs to lean into the cultural winds. The name for this disposition to embody God’s truth and love in engaging our cultural contexts is contextualism. It means learning from our neighbors, and it emphasizes justice and mercy. But without a confessional string holding on to our kite, we can be blown afar, losing our way. This confessional disposition emphasizes proclaiming and obeying God’s spiritual and moral truths. Pulling too hard on the confessional string, however, could bring the kite crashing to the ground.
The art of Christian kite-flying requires the right amount of tension between string-pulling confessionalism and into-the-wind leaning contextualism. These two dispositions are not new. Both have a long history, particularly in the Reformed tradition, and each has contributed something unique and important to Christianity’s theology and culture. But proponents of contextualism and confessionalism do not always see eye to eye. They often respond differently to issues facing the church.
We need both contextual and confessional dispositions in doing God’s mission.
Conflict arising out of differences is natural, but what's tragic is when either group demonizes the other as an enemy of the faith. Lately, derogatory terms like "backward," "permissive," "old-fashioned," "relativist," "legalist," and "apostate" have been fired like bullets across the divide, especially over social media. Instead of thinking the worst of each other, can we recognize and learn from each other's best traits? Can we recognize that we need each other in order to fly?
After all, both dispositions are united in Christ: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." Contextualists are right in that God's mission requires us to incarnate God's truth into our cultural contexts. But confessionalists are also right in that "the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it." God's life-giving truth is antithetical to sin's darkness. Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, is also the light of the world. He was "full of [both] grace and truth." These are ultimately complementary, not conflicting, dispositions. Ideally, every Christian should embody both. But it is typical of our sinfulness to break asunder what God has joined together.
We need both contextual and confessional dispositions in doing God’s mission. The devil would love nothing more than to see us tear each other apart rather than work together to save lives. I believe we can think the best, rather than the worst, of each other. We can place God's mission, instead of our own agendas, as our collective priority. We can focus on saving lives rather than on winning arguments. And we can do all this with God’s help.