3D Gospel

The Gospel as Contextual and Context-Transcendental

Tim Keller said that the gospel is not the ABC of Christianity, but the A through Z, which means that the gospel is not easy to understand penetratingly. One of the reasons for this difficulty in understanding the gospel fully and penetratingly is that while we all are the products of specific cultures, the gospel is a good news to everyone regardless of which culture they live. This also means the gospel is context-dependent and context-transcendent simultaneously. What is meant by context-dependent is that the gospel is always proclaimed in a particular context, and by context-transcendent is that the gospel is so encompassing of all human cultures that it has a message to every culture. Jayson Georges, author of the 3D Gospel, had grown up in the Western world, yet has served in Central Asia as missionary for the past 11 years. Of late he has published Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures through Inter-Varsity Press, with Mark Baker of Fresno Seminary. The book has 5 stars out of 5, and the 3D gospel seems to be a sort of prequel to Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, since it deals with such a complex topic as the cultural lens of fear, shame, and guilt in less than 100 pages, making the book a good introductory guide, yet lacking in complexity and nuances required of any scholarly treatment of the topic.

The book has four parts. The first part contends that the gospel message should be proclaimed and delivered differently depending on different cultural contexts, and the second part elaborates on the first part by the cultural typologies of guilt, shame, and fear. According to Georges, guilt is prevalent in the Western culture, shame in Asian culture, and fear in African culture. Even so, all these coexist in any and every culture, making the difference only a matter of proportion, rather than that of a kind. What Georges is getting at is that unless we are equipped with how each culture is different from one another in this regard, we will be incapable of sharing the gospel effectively. In part three, Georges discusses how theologies, particularly doctrines of salvation and atonement, could help proclaim the gospel in different cultural contexts. In the closing part, he shows how the gospel provokes a kind of encounter, as in truth-encounter, power-encounter, community-encounter, and how the gospel is coping with each counter. What is particularly helpful in this book is that Georges puts a chart or a table at the end of each chapter with concrete examples of what he has been talking about in a rather abstract manner. Thus, this book’s greatest strength would be its accessibility to a complicated topic, and its broadening effect of understanding the gospel.

On the other hand, its strength breeds its weaknesses, which I will go into for the remainder of this review. Due to the book’s brief and simple character, it might be a good introduction to novices and lay people, yet for anyone who has more than a beginner’s understanding of the topic might find it too simplistic and even distorting of the topic.

The first weakness is that the division of human cultures into three culture codes was indeed effective in terms of communication, and Georges even went so far as to acknowledge the complexities of human culture which has all three, he still largely focuses upon the difference among them, bypassing the commonalities. For example, the recent influx of Syrians into the European countries and the US has become a fascinating research topic for many anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, and even economists, and there are already plenty of research findings regarding how such influx has exerted its influence over the cities of the Western world. The fact that these migrants were mostly based in fear- or shame-based cultures, yet moved to the guilt-based culture provokes so many new insights into human nature and culture at the same time, yet since Georges is a missionary working primarily in the non-Western context, he is relatively negligent of what is happening because of the global migration. Given that the Western culture’s dominant code is shifting from guilt to shame, as has been documented so well, the migration of these people is all the more fascinating and thought-provoking, yet Georges might make the issue perhaps too much simplistic.

Second, the theological weakness of Georges’ book is its limited understanding of doctrine and doctrinal construction. Namely, he seems to give off a nuance that a particular cultural context has a corresponding doctrine to it, which is not always true. He claims that the ransom theory of atonement corresponds to fear-culture, the satisfaction theory to shame-culture, the penal substitutionary theory to guilt-culture. A counter-example of this is that the Christus Victor theory of atonement, while seemingly fitting only to fear-culture, since it speaks of taking captive of the demons and evil spirits, may find a way of proclaiming the gospel in the Western cultural context, especially given that the western culture is now more amenable to evil spirits and demons due to its re-enchantment, alongside the deeper impact of shame on the western culture. Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch spots this point right on. In other words, if Georges could not have elaborated on how doctrine is constructed, he should have discussed at length the relationship dynamic between culture and doctrine in order to avoid this possible misunderstanding.

Third, Georges’s book still seems to be dependent on texts rather than contexts, resulting in its lack of anthropological observations. Of course no one can deny that the occasion for Georges’ publication of this book should have been his missionary experiences, yet he should have made it more explicit so his readers will appreciate his insights are indeed yielded from his engagement with what is happening on the ground, and not just with what he read as if many armchair theologians commonly and mistakenly do.

Overall, this book will be helpful for grasping a big picture of the gospel’s context-dependent character, and its relationship to cultural diversity, yet it is as much open to serious cultural distortion of the gospel. Assessing the book with rather favorable perspective, I think that is perhaps why Georges published a sequel to this book with Mark Baker in Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures. I will review this book soon, so I appreciate your looking forward to it. I will review Philip Jamieson’s The Face of Forgiveness, a pastoral theology of shame and redemption.