Book Review: Contextualizing the Faith

Last month a new book on contextualization was published by Baker Academic. It is by A. Scott Moreau,  and is entitled Contextualizing the Faith: A Holistic Approach. Contextualizing the Faith: A Holistic Approach by [Moreau, A. Scott]Dr. Moreau is associate academic dean and professor of intercultural studies at Wheaton College Graduate School. He takes a ‘dimensional’ approach to contextualization, “an approach that deals with the whole life of the church and yet organized in a way that it could be taken in smaller chunks” (preface, ix). Moreau develops an approach to contextualization that goes beyond the intellectual or theological level.

In chapter 1 he sets the stage by briefly discussing “What is Contextualization?” He does not give a formal definition but the following quote characterizes his understanding:

Contextualization happens everywhere the church exists. And by church, I’m referring to the people of God rather than to buildings. Contextualization refers to how those people live out their faith in light of the values of their societies. … But contextualization does not focus purely on what we do; it also examines why we do it the way we do. At the intersection of faith and culture, it forces us to step back (as impossible as that is) from ourselves and ask questions about why we practice our faith as we do. (p 2)

What are these dimensions? The author explores seven dimensions (the first of which is divided into four components): The Social Dimension as Association and Kinship (ch.2), The Social Dimension as Exchange: Economics (ch.3), The Social Dimension as Learning: Education (ch.4), The Social Dimension as Organization: Politics (ch.5), The Mythic Dimension (ch.6), The Ethical Dimension (ch.7) The Artistic and Technological Dimension (ch.8), The Ritual Dimension (ch.9), The Experience Dimension: The Supernatural (ch.10), and The Doctrinal Dimension (ch.11). As Moreau works through these dimensions he follows the same general outline:

(1) an introduction to the dimension (or component), (2) a discussion of how that dimension shows up in Scripture, and (3) selected examples of what contextualization of that dimension entails. (p 10)

As the author begins discussion of the first dimension, he reminds the reader that “our goal is learning how to contextualize” (p 11). Some readers might be disappointed at times when Moreau gives examples without expressing his opinion, leaving some open questions. He is more concerned about the process than passing judgment on the examples. There are sidebars with each dimension or component with questions to consider to help us think through the intersection of the cultural setting and Scripture. The author wants to help the reader think through the issues but is not going to think for us. There are also case studies at the end of each chapter giving a practical setting for thinking through contextualization in that dimension. The sidebars and case studies make this a great book for group studies and discussion.

Overall, I think this is a helpful and thoughtful book that will help cross-cultural workers and their converts contextualize their faith. I would prefer to rename the mythic dimension something like ‘defining stories’ or ‘metanarratives’ because of the common association of falsehood with the term ‘myth.’ This is a minor point and the author repeatedly reminds the reader that myth does not imply falsehood as he is using the term.

In the final chapter, “The Future of Contextualization,” he sums up the book well:

As I stated and demonstrated throughout the book, contextualization includes everything a local church or ministry is and does. This ranges across seven dimensions, each playing a role and dynamically interlocking with the other dimensions.

Contextualization is not just about knowing: it is also about putting what one knows into action or practice. Understanding the seven dimensions of contextualization is only a first step. Applying those dimensions in real life is where contextualization comes alive, and I anticipate that as a result of working through this book, you have found discussion and examples that will enable – and perhaps empower – you to think, act, and live contextually in ways that honor God and serve local followers of Christ. (p 232)

Moreau’s holistic approach to contextualizing the faith moves the discussion forward in ways that value the authority of Scripture expressed in local contexts. I recommend reading it together with your team, discussing the sidebar questions and case studies, then contextualize in your context.

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