Contextualization vs. chameleonization

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about contextualization—not so much the contextualization of language, but the contextualization of lifestyle: becoming “all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:22).

My thoughts were sparked by an evening we spent with our next door neighbours recently. As Dave and I were clearing things away at the end of the night, I reflected on the evening and the way that I’d approached it.

Before our guests arrived, I had chosen an outfit that approximated the style of clothes my neighbour wears, I made an extra-gourmet salad and I bought a couple of fancy cheeses. Over dinner and afterwards, I spent a lot of time talking about mortgages and extensions and consumer products. I had also talked a lot about work—the work I used to do (before kids)—in an instinctive effort to establish the kind of education and career credentials that might be taken more seriously than my current job as a full-time mum. And finally (this is the killer one!) I found myself squirming in my seat, wanting to change the subject, when they asked my four-year-old daughter what her favourite thing in the world was, and she answered, “Jesus”.

All this got me wondering what’s the difference between contextualization (or whatever word you want to use to describe doing what it says in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23) and chameleonization (or whatever word you use to describe not doing what it says in Matthew 5:13-16). It seems to me that it’s easy to tell the difference when the thing you’re doing to blend in is flat-out black-and-white sinful. Furthermore, it’s easier to see the importance of learning the language and the customs if you’re Hudson Taylor in inland China.

But what about the thousand little adjustments I instinctively make to minimize the social awkwardness that comes from the differences between the lifestyle I’ve learned as a Christian and the lifestyles of my friends and neighbours? What about the gap between the Christian subculture and the mainstream culture of Australian suburbia? How hard do I need to be working at teasing out the differences between the non-negotiables of the Christian culture, formed by the word of God, and the dispensable Flanders-family cringe factors?

Here’s my current thinking (which is still a work in progress!):

• Maybe the array of terms that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (“Jews”; “those under the law”; “those outside the law”; “the weak”, etc.) is not really a long list of examples of various cultural differences to be overcome by contextualization. Maybe in Paul’s situation, it all boils down to one issue: the impact of old covenant food and purity laws on who he is able to sit down and share a meal with.
• Maybe the main application point of that passage for me is not about trying to look and sound more like my neighbours when we sit around the table talking; maybe it’s simply about overcoming the kind of preferences and prejudices that would stop me from sitting around a table with them at all.
• Maybe I’ve been hiding behind “all things to all people” as an excuse for not obeying “let your light shine before others”.
• Maybe I should focus a bit more on having dinner with the neighbours more often, and focus a bit less on trying not to look like the Flanders family when I do.
• Maybe I should pay a bit more attention to loving my neighbours, and pay a bit less attention to looking like them.

What do you think?

Comments are closed.