Monday, November 15, 2010

The issue of 'contextualization'

Last week in a meeting, a friend mentioned that our group can produce our own educational materials that are contextualized to local context. I raised my question over his suggestion.

I affirmed the need for relevance in issue and language in our context. That simply means that we need to raise issues that have immediate concern to us (eg. immigration issues in Singapore) and not those which are not (eg. Tea Party movement in America).

I objected against the idea of 'contextualization' if that means we always have to keep looking for new identity for ourselves or make our case distinct for the mere sake of new identity and being distinct.

The idea of contextualization is not to be abstracted as a tautology that everyone in this part of the world must conform to if to be genuine to our situation and location. Our reasoning, response, and engagement are not confined by contextualization. If brought to the extreme, contextualization became individualization, where context is being pushed onto the individual.

This simply ignores the commonalities that we share and alienate individuals from individuals. In the end, we have nothing but fragmentation and anarchy.

I do not deny the good will of folks who pioneered the idea of contextualization. They were aware of colonial imposition and weary that this would repeat itself. So they pushed for contextualization so that the locals able to articulate, evangelise, and celebrate the faith in their own expression.

Their reason is for locals to emancipate into authentic embodiment of the Christian identity rooted in their 'culture', distinguishing themselves from others; asking different questions and giving different answers.

The moot point here is obviously the word 'culture'. All knows that 'culture' is not stagnant. Culture is parasitic. It can not survive on its own. It lives on those who embodied it. Without a host, there is no culture. 'Ang Pow' ceases to be a cultural expression when no one is giving or receiving it.

Contextualization therefore is not a project to distinguish identity in this world where culture is fluid. In a global village, where the 'world is flat', the questions that we face are limited in variety, and the answers that we have converge from time to time.

The questions we asked might have been asked by our counterparts. The answers we thought of might have been provided.

If we don't have new questions or encounter an entirely new situations, we don't keep looking for new identify for ourselves or make our case distinct for the mere sake of identity and being distinct.

If we don't have new answers to old questions, we shouldn't use 'contextualization' as an excuse to distinguish ourselves from those who already provided the answers, as if we are the pioneer who respond to these questions simply because we answer them in our context.

And besides, "To be a Christian is to learn to live in a story you haven't chosen." Rightly said by Stanley Hauerwas. The Christian identity is not something pre-culture that is waiting to be contextualized or culturated by us. That identity itself is already embodied in a particular culture in the 1st century Palestine, whether we like it or not.

Besides, 'contextualization' could simply be another manifestation of colonialism. We are told to contextualize so that what we say or do will not have to be considered or taken seriously by those who told us to contextualize as they have a different context than ours.

But of course, given the time limit in that meeting, I didn't say all that is blogged here. In fact, I didn't say much. The bottom line is that if 'contextualization' is simply to draw out and address immediate concerns, then it is fine (as no one exist without context). Anything more than that is suspect.

After the meeting, the chairman and I spoke while on our way to the elevator. He re-emphasized the need for us to contextualize. With a smile, I replied cheekily, "The idea of contextualization was introduced to us by those from the West through certain institution, scholars, and books. So if we adopt it, we are defeating the idea itself."

The elevator came.

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