Tuesday, February 1, 2005

Culture out of context: What Spiderman and Christianity have in common

According to The Weekly Standard, the boys down at Marvel are trying some new tricks with an old favorite. Spider-Man is getting a facelift and a re-write to serve new audiences in India. Marvel calls it a "transcreation" since they are attempting to preserve the core of the moral themes in Spider-Man while re-writing the backstory and character to accomodate non-American readers:

Though we will remain true to the underlining mythos of Spider-Man, which is epitomized in the phrase "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility," the character will be reinvented so his powers, problems and costume are more integrated with Indian culture. Unlike the U.S. origin, which is deeply rooted in science, the Indian version is more rooted in magic and mythology.
I find the sociology of this fascinating. Even the Marvel folks can get their minds around the possibility of a transcendent universal truth, specifically here about power and its attendant pitfalls. That this truth can be uprooted from its uniquely American cultural context and re-written into a very different Indian culture is a fascinating idea.

As a church planter, I've run into this concept before. One of the big challenges of planting a church is a process called contextualization. This is the process of taking what is universal about the Christian faith and attempting to communicate and embody those truths in a way that makes sense to a particular culture. To a new generation of people who have never been to church, a lot of the "culture" of existing churches is foreign to them (i.e., stuck in the 1950's) and is of no help in communicating the gospel.

One of the tasks of the church planter is to attempt to bridge the gap between the surrounding culture and the universal aspects of the Christian faith. For example, instead of a translation of the Bible that reads:

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
The church planter might choose one that is more immediately accessible to readers:

But now God has shown us a different way of being right in his sight—not by obeying the law but by the way promised in the Scriptures long ago. We are made right in God’s sight when we trust in Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we all can be saved in this same way, no matter who we are or what we have done. For all have sinned; all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet now God in his gracious kindness declares us not guilty. He has done this through Christ Jesus, who has freed us by taking away our sins. For God sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins and to satisfy God’s anger against us. We are made right with God when we believe that Jesus shed his blood, sacrificing his life for us. God was being entirely fair and

just when he did not punish those who sinned in former times. And he is entirely fair and just in this present time when he declares sinners to be right in his sight because they believe in Jesus.

Big difference in the two readings, if only in the level of literal translation from the original greek in which the text was written. No doubt in another twenty years, the above text won't work well at all. This is a perfect example of contextualization - choosing something that communicates Christian faith clearly in our present culture. Other examples include choice of musical style and style of dress. It becomes a real challenge: attempting to clear away what is culturally out-of-place and therefore a stumbling block without distorting or omitting important aspects of the transcendent universal truth.

I wonder how old Stan Lee reacted when they began messing with his great success story? How much more do Christians get uneasy when asking themselves, what is true and what is merely cultural?

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