Dialoguing and Decentring in the Search for the Full Gospel in Local Contexts

The gospel delivered to those new to the faith can often be reductionist. This paper considers ways in which the gospel as delivered to us and our understanding are unavoidably limited. It draws on ideas of dialogue and decentring in Bakhtin’s work and the nomadic theory of Deleuze and Guattari to advocate a fuller local theology in context.

Paul Woods works at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies as a research tutor with particular focus on East Asia. Previously, he taught theology and mission at Singapore Bible College. He has served in Chinese Diaspora ministry, as linguistic consultant at the OMF International Centre, and as language and culture advisor for the Mekong Field. His current research interest is contemporary East and Southeast Asian fiction as a means of understanding the contexts in which mission is done.

Dialoguing and Decentring in the Search for the Full Gospel in Local Contexts

Mission Round Table Vol. 14 No. 2 (May-August 2019): 4-10

Introduction

Christian mission is the business of taking the message of God as recorded in the Scriptures and embedding this within individuals, peoples, and cultures in accordance with his redemptive purposes. On the orientation course we were given a helpful clarification of the difference between evangelism and evangelisation, the latter term featuring in OMF’s mission statement. Many churches and denominations around the world, and many of the great faith missions and their descendants are better at evangelism than evangelisation. We are better at converting people than discipling them, and in many situations discipleship needs to go beyond traditional ideas of prayer, Bible reading, and church attendance. In that sense, the gospel delivered to those new to the faith can often be reductionist or truncated.

Recently, evangelicalism has confessed that more needs to be done to reveal and release the gospel in all its fullness in specific contexts. Practitioners and theoreticians around the world continue to work to improve the Christianisation of peoples and cultures, the critical engagement of the gospel with existing worldviews, social mores, and ethno-cultural practices.

This paper draws on ideas of dialogue [1]  and decentring in the work of Mikhail Bakhtin [2]  and the nomadic theory of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari [3]  to advocate a fuller local theology in context. Before exploring their work it is necessary to consider different ways in which both the gospel as delivered to us and our understanding are unavoidably limited.

The limitation of the gospel and our understanding of it

This paper espouses a broad and rounded idea of the gospel rather than one which understands God’s redemptive purposes as focused on the individual soul and views human civilisation as evil and destined for destruction. Recent scholarship by Chris Wright [4]  and Tom Wright [5]  among others has commended a holistic and critically engaged gospel to us, which adopts a full  creation-fall-redemption-restoration  paradigm rather than a simple  fall-redemption  one.

Consideration of sections of the Old Testament, many New Testament Epistles, and the dual theological lenses of the partially inaugurated kingdom of God and the eschatological vision of Revelation suggests that the message of Scripture is underspecified. [6]  In literary theory and linguistics, “underspecification” means that a given utterance or written text can never contain all of the information required to understand the message being transmitted. The reader or listener has to fill in gaps and make inferences from knowledge that he or she already has in a mediated dialogue between the author and the reader. There is a reader response as well as an authorial intent. For some, “reader response” suggests respect for the reader’s intelligence and an acknowledgement of the work of the Holy Spirit. Others may associate the term with an undermining of authorial intent and a slide towards individualist, postmodern interpretation. Regardless of our responses to “reader response”, it and indeed underspecification are realities.

I believe that another kind of underspecification occurs in N. T. Wright’s “five-act play” model, but at the conceptual level. [7]  Wright is one of several authors who discuss God’s revelation and the associated responsibility of the church in terms of the acts of a play. The Scriptures contain four completed acts: creation, fall, Israel, and Jesus. We are also given the first scene of the fifth act, corresponding to the church and the Revelation given to John. Wright claims that we now live in the second part of the fifth act and know what has gone before because we can refer to the script. The book of Revelation gives us a sketchy idea of how the play will end. We do not have a script for the life of the church now; there are no lines to recite or stage directions. However, the authority of God, the record of the Scriptures, and the Holy Spirit enable us to work out how to be Christian in the here and now. [8]

A further limitation comes from the finite context in which the Scriptures were given. The OT exhibits strong embodiment in an Israelite/Jewish culture which evolved significantly between the patriarchs and the Minor Prophets. The NT contains four Gospels written for Jews and Gentiles and a body of teaching material which negotiated the different and sometimes contradictory cultural expectations of Christians from Hellenised Jewish and Greek backgrounds under imperial Roman domination. The gospel deposit that we have received is limited in space and time.

Finally, there is our own embodiment. Missionaries and Christian workers come to their ministries as products of their personal experience, ethnic/national culture, and theological training. Scripture is a joint divine-human project, but theology and missiology are much more human. As we bring the gospel to other cultures, we may overlook our own embodiedness and consequent need to question our understanding of it.

From the perspective of literary theory or biblical theology, the basic underspecification of the gospel means that we are not given detailed instructions on how to be Christian. Bringing into juxtaposition the fundamental embodiedness of the gospel message in first-century Palestine and the eastern Mediterranean and our own limited perspectives and experience reveals a depiction of the gospel which is not exhaustive. Some like to describe Scripture as a blueprint for living, but that is rather simplistic. In his wisdom and trust in his human servants, God has given us powerful principles and compelling stories as well as brains and experience to apply the gospel deposit from the past into the present.

Orientation to local theologies

With this in mind, contextualisation and local theologies are vital if we are to see the emergence of the full gospel in a particular context. We can consider enculturation, contextualisation, and local theologies as partially overlapping endeavours. Enculturation concerns the embedding of the gospel in a traditional cultural framework, while contextualisation [9]  requires us to take account of contemporary socio-political issues as well. These related efforts were originally seen as the responsibility of foreign missionaries in a cross-cultural context. The growth of the worldwide church and partnership between missionaries, mission organisations, local churches, and local believers now demand “local theologies” crafted and applied by indigenous Christians. These may be developed with the assistance or advice of outsiders, especially if a young church lacks theological resources and expertise.

Song Minho contributed to the idea of local theologies in his 2006 paper on contextualisation and discipleship, identifying local factors which might inhibit progress in discipleship in Asia. [10]  He sought to move away from “off the peg” solutions imported from the West and allow the context to speak, in order to respond to local issues. Song’s intelligent engagement with context was a huge advance, yet his aim of equipping local Christians to resist the corrosive effects of society could be described as “coping”, which evokes the metaphor of a shield.

Contextualization and Discipleship: Closing the gap between Theory and Practice – Song Minho
https://dev.omf.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/MRT-1.2-April-2005-Globalization.pdf
Song Minho offers healthy critique against uncontextualized discipleship programs being exported to Asia. He argues that context-sensitive approaches in discipling Asian believers should deal with local problems such as corruption, fear of spirits, and poverty.

To move towards a fuller implementation of the gospel, in the spirit of Ephesians 6:10–17, mission must consider the sword as a complement to the shield; we need to encourage active, transformational engagement with society. We can put a little flesh on the bones by looking briefly at a short section of Revelation 21. In verses 22–27 we read about the presence of God in the city. To this centre of holiness the kings of the earth will bring their splendour and glory (Rev 21:24–25). Yet, because of the glory of God and the holiness of the city, nothing evil or deceitful will be able to enter it. These twin themes of divine holiness and human splendour suggest a redemptive  filtration  of multiple areas of human existence and endeavour  by God and his people. In this era of already-but-not-yet, we can build on the threefold typology for interacting with human cultures derived by Chris Wright in his study of Old Testament ethics. [11]  He claims that as God’s people advanced into new territory they encountered values compatible with God’s (such as family and respect for older people), behaviours totally unacceptable to a holy God who created humanity in his image (such as child sacrifice), and customs to be monitored and gradually weeded out (such as polygamy). The specifics here are from Wright, but the applicability of the principles to any cultural and political context should be clear enough.

Finally, Schreiter tells us that local theologies are constructed when the gospel is adopted and adapted into a given context, beginning with “the needs of the local community” [12]  and providing responses to difficulties local believers face. The results of such an endeavour could look a little different from theologies inherited from the West. Indeed, he claims that the local theologies that have emerged so far feel like the wisdom tradition of the early church period; there is something earthy and connected about this body of knowledge. [13]  Local instantiations of theology are more the work of local people than of academic theologians. The latter are important, but must act to serve the local people. He reminds us that local theologies draw from multiple sources and advocates a continuous dialogue between “gospel, church, and culture.” [14]

Constructing local theologies requires engaging with the “totality of the culture” and cannot remain only on the intellectual or rational level. If outsiders or theologically trained locals are involved, they must respect the identity of local believers as Christians in their own right and their freedom to look and feel different from Christians in other countries or even other valleys, at the same time as they hold on to core truths. Culture is not fixed and thus local theology is aimed at a moving target. Also, the balance between the particular and the universal is unlikely to be perfect.

So far, this paper has considered the fundamental underspecification of the gospel and the need to bring our limited understanding of it into dialogue with culture in the broadest sense. In addition, local theologies require a dialogue with and between people embedded in their own culture and the intentional removal of “experts” to the margins. Themes similar to these appear in the work of the Russian thinker Bakhtin and the French duo of Deleuze and Guattari.

Fellow wanderers: Deleuze, Guattari, and Braidotti

Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995) was a philosopher and his associate Felix Guattari (1930–1992) was a psychoanalyst and activist.
Together they wrote a number of books, the most relevant of which to this paper is  A Thousand Plateaus[15]  If a single motif had to be identified for their work, it would be continuity; their philosophical approach rejects simple dualism and definition and always looks for integration, continuity, and movement. Rosi Braidotti (1954–) is an Australian feminist philosopher of Italian descent, who has developed the nomadic theory of Deleuze and Guattari and brought it into dialogue with contemporary issues.

The concept of nomadism does not concern itinerant herders in Mongolia; it is a way of looking at and reflecting upon the world. The basic idea is that all must become nomadic in their identities and thought. All three scholars critique the Cartesian dualisms at the heart of Western thought. Braidotti’s “embodied subject” reunites the affective and the rational; heart and mind need not exist in dichotomy. The same notion requires us to think about individuals and communities in terms of their rootedness in traditional and contemporary culture, gender frameworks, intergenerational dynamics, and interpersonal relationships. [16]  We cannot consider any person or group divorced from their context,  in vacuo, so to speak. It is probably fair to say that until recently Western thought in general and evangelical mission in particular have paid insufficient attention to the embodiment of individuals and communities. The phrase “one size fits all” comes to mind. The creative tension between the particular and the universal advocated by nomadic theory can help us navigate the nuances and complexities inherent in local contexts and theologies.

Dialogue with people means interacting with those who belong in a given context, identifying with its culture, and fitting into its social structure. While Braidotti likes to talk about the “lived experience” of embodied subjects, [17]  Charles Taylor speaks of “embodied agents.” [18]  Respecting the agency of people different from ourselves means being willing to take risks and honour their heritage as we accept that their journey of theological development may not be the same as our own.

Deleuze and Guattari are critical of the Enlightenment need for definition, preferring to see the world in terms of processes and continua. A central notion in nomadic theory is that of  becoming, Deleuze and Guattari emphasising change rather than stasis. For them, any given  status quo  can only be the temporary outcome of a process and will soon be modified by the forces acting upon it. That which can be measured and defined is only a snapshot, a frame, of an unfolding drama. There are clear resonances here with various kinds of underspecification and reader response.

As people who questioned the political order from a neo-Marxist perspective, Deleuze and Guattari paid a great deal of attention to the margins. For them, too much Western history and ideology have been defined by and centred on privileged white males, and it is time to hear the voices of those at the edge. To make sense of and improve our human existence, everybody—highly privileged and less privileged, both genders, indeed all represented by the simple binaries that we have for so long taken for granted—must go to the margins and begin again. This aspect of their programme evokes the gospel inclusivity of Galatians 3:28 and Hiebert’s fourth self—self-theologising. [19]

The radical decentring of nomadism allows us to look at ourselves, our mission partners, and indeed the whole world through new eyes, as we become free to question our assumptions about everything around us. Such radical repositioning and decentring interrogate and, in some cases, even disassemble existing ideologies, structures, and power relationships and advocate  becoming. Deleuze and Guattari and Braidotti discuss  becoming-woman,  becoming-machine, and  becoming-insect[20]  There is no  becoming-man  because this would represent a move to the centre which would strengthen privilege and division.

Braidotti insists that all embodied subjects must undergo becoming, whether we are at the centre or the margins. [21]   Becoming-woman  has two aspects. Negatively, the process involves apprehending the unfairness of the relationship between the genders, including power asymmetries, the objectification of the female body in culture and business, and stereotypical views of women.  Positively, we are to appreciate and learn from what the feminine stands for. This cannot be a one-size-fits-all journey, as  becoming-woman  may feel very different for those at the centre compared with those at the margins.

Becoming-machine  is derived from the relationship between people and machines. Although “machine” is not a new metaphor for some human activities, the apparently all-encompassing scope of technology is making aspects of modern life machine-like. We are dependent on and interfaced with all manner of sophisticated technology. Computer technology, transport, and logistics seem to be reducing differences between men and women. Mass production and distribution emphasise the interchangeability of parts, including people. Individual distinctives can get in the way of efficient service and delivery of goods. A monotonous similarity does at least guarantee that we will enjoy our cup of coffee or fast-food meal the same way every time, regardless of who made it or how and where it was made. Our question about our bank account, gas bill, or air ticket might be answered by Bill in Birmingham or Bavesh in Bangalore, whose flawless adherence to the correct protocols means that we get what we need. The machine idea warns us against simplistic adoption of one-size-fits-all approaches to thinking and being. We are reminded here that the individual and his or her needs are sacrificed for the sake of production or efficiency, and that systems are all too often imposed from outside.

The third form,  becoming-insect, is possibly the hardest to identify with, although there is some overlap with  becoming-machine. Thinking about insects reminds us that we share our very existence with the “other”. Their appearance, size, colour, and modes of movement make them alien and we may view them with loathing and even fear. They often appear to us in groups or even hordes, their dark, shiny exoskeletons resembling the uniforms of soldiers from another realm. Insects represent the fear of the other, different and threatening in their plural numbers, and incapable of even the most basic communication with us. There are reminders here about essentialisation and the othering of other cultures and faiths. More positively, we know that social insects have sophisticated modes of communication, organisation, and labour.

Another central concept of nomadic theory is the rhizome—flat, non-hierarchical structures which grow horizontally and cover large expanses of territory. Mould and mushrooms are rhizomes. Although they grow from a point, after a period of time it can be hard to determine where the original centre was. They are always becoming, and here is the relevance to Deleuze and Guattari’s rejection of stasis and embracing of dynamism. Rhizomes are flexible and non-hierarchical and in nomadic theory represent the opposite of the hierarchical tree-like structures which dominate Western thought and organisational paradigms. Although Deleuze and Guattari describe the rhizome as without central organisation, [22]  I believe that the matter is not quite so simple. A rhizome, whether mould or mushroom, is defined by its DNA; there is an essential mouldiness about mould and mushroomness about mushrooms and they behave in a certain way because that is what they are. On the macro level, rhizomes exemplify the absence of hierarchy and discernible structure, but on the micro level they grow and function according to in-built instructions and procedures.

The final element of nomadic theory relevant to this paper is the “line of flight”. [23]  In  A Thousand Plateaus, the  nomadic i dea of  lignes de fuite  allows us to dislocate from or escape a given situation and do something new. In a previous paper on nomadic theory and mission, I back-translate from the English  flight  to French  vol  rather than  fuite, tentatively adding a sense. [24]  I argue that moving from centre to periphery and taking account of a person’s circumstances defines a trajectory. When a cannon is fired, the trajectory of the shell is defined by the height of the cannon, the angle of the barrel, and the power of the charge. Thus, the  creative decentring of Deleuze and Guattari involves not only a dislocation or escape, but also a flight envelope associated with the initial conditions.

In dialogue with Bakhtin

The Russian Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975) wrote a number of works on philosophy and literary theory in the early Soviet period, many of which were only made known to Western readers after the 1970s. Under his “being-as-event”, [25]  existence is always ongoing and moving. Also, “events of being” always involve relationships between oneself and others and are experienced together rather than merely thought of. [26]  Bakhtin emphasises the event and insists that excessive abstraction or theoretisation results in impoverished understanding because the findings or conclusions are divorced from the event and its context. This feeds into his notion of embodiment, which is informed by the principle of the incarnation in Orthodox theology. [27]

Renfrew argues that the idea of “fluid and dynamic” relationships is central to Bakhtin’s thought. [28]  Indeed, Bakhtin’s understanding of the relation between self and other was founded on embodied subjects in time and space which interact with each other, a philosophical orientation which later developed into his dialogism.

From his scholarship on Dostoevsky, Bakhtin derives his concepts of finalisation and unfinalisability. Finalisation is related to the attempt to theorise and fully define a being or entity and stands in opposition to unfinalisability, which seeks to understand and also preserve the openness and liveliness of an entity or a concept. The unfinalisable is unclosed and indeterminate [29]  and events are unfinished. [30]  There is a clear connection to underspecification.

In the same study, Bakhtin developed the idea of multiple voices within the novel, the so-called polyphony which he connected strongly with the idea of dialogue. [31]  The idea of dialogue was subsequently extended in Bakhtin’s thought as he came to believe that it is present in all human interactions. His colleague Voloshinov went on to suggest that monologue or individual thought was, in fact, a fiction. [32]  The emphasis on dialogue and the principle that people and entities are always mutually interacting is congruent with unfinalisability. No concept, entity, or human interaction is ever really finished or finalised; there is always more to say and further to go.

Moving forward with the philosophers

It is time to apply Bakhtin and Deleuze and Guattari to local theologising to see how we can move towards a full gospel in local contexts. I do not accept nomadic theory uncritically, and in invoking the idea of the rhizome in particular I am not advocating chaos or the evisceration of the gospel. I am simply hoping that the two bodies of philosophy can help us engage carefully in dialogue in order to see a full gospel emerge.

Both Bakhtin and nomadic theory recognise the tentative nature of thought and theorising, and that conclusions are always interim and open to question. Both emphasise the importance of listening to people in their embodiedness, as complex mixtures of the rational and the emotional, and as individuals within community. Deleuze and Guattari ask us to deconstruct hierarchy and take ourselves to the margins. Nomadic theory gives us an attitudinal posture and asks us to learn from and together with the people among whom we hope to see a flourishing, culturally relevant, and culturally critical instantiation of the body of Christ, founded on principles from both testaments and living these out in a specific time, space, and culture.

As outsiders (often missionaries from Western or westernised countries using Western or westernised methodologies) bring the gospel into a particular situation, they will encounter the “other”—people and groups different from themselves. Part of the missionary task is to understand and negotiate that otherness. But this is only half of the story; if we are serious about interacting with local people to whom we bring the gospel or with whom we work to extend the gospel, then we must understand that they too are negotiating otherness. Those yet to come to faith will be very different from missionaries and even local Christians will almost certainly be dissimilar to their foreign brothers and sisters in Christ. Local believers also have to negotiate their own otherness and differences vis-à-vis the majority indigenous population.

Within this context then, it is essential to engage in respectful, decentred dialogue, and recognise that it is ongoing, as Bakhtin said. The contexts in which local theologies are developed suggest a number of separate but overlapping dialogues.

If we accept that the bare bones of the gospel as laid out in a Hellenised eastern Mediterranean cultural and political milieu are underspecified, and if we agree that context comprises not only “traditional” culture, but also contemporary social and political forces and factors, then the interaction between gospel and culture is of supreme importance. The original teaching on God’s purposes for his people was given to Hebrews and subsequently to “Greeks”, and thus always involves a hermeneutical exercise, because much biblical content, including the most didactic of the New Testament letters, feels foreign to us. We don’t seal deals by exchanging sandals, we (in the West at least) don’t worry about food that has been offered to idols, and we are not overly concerned about Old Testament law. Scripture  is  “culturally conditioned”. [33]  Good theologising builds bridges between God’s authoritative word and contextual issues; an example is Paul’s wrestling with the issue of food sacrificed to idols in Corinth. As Walls says: “a Hellenistic way of following Jesus is under construction.” [34]  He discusses how theology is created during the mission enterprise as the gospel crosses borders and has to deal with new challenges. For him, this theological construction is a result of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), whose requirements are quite underspecified indeed.

With all of this in mind, Bakhtin’s dialogism helps us think about how teaching about God’s righteousness, the individual, the community, social justice, and morality collide with the situation in a given location. From the other side, how does a deeper and more rounded understanding of the context help us revisit our theology and understanding of Scripture and demand more from our inherently limited understanding? This is precisely Paul’s experience as he dealt with the idol question.

Nomadic theory’s  becoming  and concept of the rhizome are helpful here. In the extraordinary  A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari argue that any state of affairs is only a temporary bringing together of factors and influences in a stream of action and development. We must think of our understanding of the gospel in such terms: it is our personal derivation, based on the thinking and writing of others, integrating philosophy, culture, history, and theology. Our embryonic or even well-informed apprehension of a local ministry context is also a snapshot. Going forward, my dual interpretation of lines of flight suggests that our integrated understanding of both develops along broad trajectories.

Rhizomes have no centre, beginning, nor end. They are slabs of activity, expanding wherever they can in a non-hierarchical way, but according to shared DNA. Can we think of our understanding of what the gospel is and might be in analogous terms? Do we have the courage to think of our theological and missiological systems as just one part of a kingdom splurge that God is creating around the world? Are we willing to think of ourselves as not central, our gospel understanding no more important than one developing in some majority world urban sprawl or rural context?

Moving to another kind of dialogue, there are few completely unchurched parts of the world today. Wherever we undertake mission we will find some believers, and foreign missionaries entering a given context will usually encounter and interact with the local church to some degree. Local believers may be few in number and lack theological understanding. They may be under intense persecution. They may have sold out to nominalism and worldliness. They may be zealous for what we might feel is an unhealthy fundamentalism. Nonetheless, there must be a dialogue between outsider and insider.

If we assume, although in this day and age this might not be justified, that missionaries are better trained and more theologically astute than local Christians, then the foreigners have something to offer to the local believers. The locals definitely have a deeper understanding of their own context and culture than the outsiders, although dialogue of this kind will always benefit from both emit and etic perspectives, as Bakhtin and Deleuze and Guattari would agree. Local and foreign Christians must dialogue to see how the gospel can survive, grow into, and transform life in a given situation; this is the combination of the shield and the sword. Nomadic  becoming  challenges us. Foreign missionaries and local church leaders often have power and influence, which put them at the centre, which Braidotti characterises as male. Yet, if there is going to be genuine dialogue then all need to move to the margins and adopt the attitude of the powerless, a stance analogous to the  kenosis  of Christian theology. This would protect the emerging local fullness of the gospel from unhealthy hierarchical power dynamics, the corrosive individualism often associated with the West, and the stultifying conformism of some parts of the East.

We never take the gospel into a philosophical or religious vacuum. If the centre of the mission endeavour is the preaching of the gospel and the conversion of the lost, then as well as addressing people’s fundamental spiritual needs as identified in Christian Scripture, we must also appreciate their perceived or felt needs. We need to understand their systems of morality, justice, and social interaction, which may collide and even conflict with the gospel. More positively, centuries of Christian mission to Asia have shown us that there is much in the beliefs and religions of the region that merits respect and from which we can learn. We know that people do not simply bend the knee to Christ when they first hear about him; conversion is often a long and complex process of deconstruction and reconstruction of beliefs. Dialogue between Christians and non-Christians should play a vital role in developing a full gospel in context.

The idea of embodied subject is common to Bakhtin and nomadic theory and requires us to look at people as individuals within community and embody ourselves together with them; in mission terms, this is a form of incarnational ministry. We cannot avoid considering culture, history, gender, social class, and local concerns and issues as they relate to ordinary human lives in context. This embodiment of the gospel places us into a tension between the universal and the particular; Bakhtin and nomadic thought require us to think and be glocal. What would  the New Testament have looked like if Paul had gone east rather than west? The local issues faced and the dialogue partners encountered would have given rise to letters to the churches in Bokhara, Samarkand, or Bishkek quite different from the missives to the Corinthians, Thessalonians, and Romans.

Bakhtin reminds us that the dialogue is more about becoming than being. Our work to identify, develop, or dig out a full gospel from context and theology is always going to be tentative and hopefully asymptotic. God knows where and how our developmental line on the graph meets the axis; we do not, and we must work in faith.

For this reason we must be bold enough to embrace Bakhtin’s unfinalisability. Societies are always changing and so is our understanding of the gospel. Bakhtin helps us to accept this lack of closure and sets us free from the need to define. Scripture depicts a process of development through the Old Testament and into the New; we cannot stand still. Part of the tragedy of the Pharisees was that they could not escape the shackles of finalisation and failed to grasp that Jesus was developing the gospel along a trajectory which lay inchoate in the Old Testament. Paul’s critics made a similar mistake when he went beyond the bounds of Judaism in his ministry.

Conclusion

This article has introduced the notion of the underspecification of the gospel in various aspects and followed this with a summary of relevant and helpful ideas from the Russian Bakhtin and the Frenchmen Deleuze and Guattari. Ideas of becoming, moving away from definitions, decentring, dialogue rhizomes, and the embodied subject can help us deal with God-ordained underspecification and equip and motivate us to discover a fuller gospel in a particular ministry context.

The paper is designed to advocate a theoretical position and has dealt with the various philosophical notions in general terms. Also, time and space do not allow specific applications to context. That said, I believe that the approaches of Bakhtin and Deleuze and Guattari may fit better philosophically with the worldviews of non-Western people as an agenda for local theologising, probably having more in common with East Asian thought than Cartesian dualism and the Enlightenment need for certainty.

I hope that this introductory work can be followed up by further discussion and an eventual application to ministry contexts in East Asia.

[1]  The dialogue between Christian theology and contemporary philosophy is part of a broader research agenda which I argue for in  “ First Among Equals: Christian Theology and Modern Philosophy,”   Transformation 34  (July 2017):  165–75.

[2]  Mikhail Bakhtin,  The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (Austin: University of Texas, 1981).

[3]   Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari,  A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia  (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1987).

[4]   Christopher Wright,  The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative  (Leicester: IVP, 2006).

[5]   Tom Wright,  Surprised by Hope  (London: SPCK, 2007).

[6]  Robyn Carston,  Thoughts and Utterances  (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002); Terence Cave,  Thinking with Literature: Towards a Cognitive Criticism  (Oxford: OUP, 2016).

[7]  N. T. Wright, “How can the Bible be Authoritative? (The Laing Lecture for 1989),”  Vox Evangelica 21 (1991): 7–32.

[8]  Wright, “How can the Bible be Authoritative?,” 19.

[9]  C. H. Hwang,  Joint Action for Mission in Formosa: A Call for Advance into a New Era  (New York: WCC, 1968).

[10]  Minho Song, “Contextualization and Discipleship: Closing the Gap between Theory and Practice,”  Evangelical Review of Theology  30 (July 2006): 249.

[11]  Chris Wright,  Living as the People of God  (Leicester: IVP,  1983): 174–96.

[12]   Robert Schreiter , “ Local Theologies in the Local Church  Issues and Methods,”  Catholic Theological Society of America Proceedings  36 (1981):  98.

[13]  Schreiter, “Local Theologies,” 100.

[14]  Schreiter, “Local Theologies,” 103.

[15]   Deleuze and Guattari,  A Thousand Plateaus .

[16]   Rosi Braidotti,  Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist theory , 2nd ed.  (New York: Columbia University, 2011), 66.

[17]   Braidotti,  Nomadic Subjects , 75 .

[18]   Charles Taylor,  Philosophical Arguments  (London: Harvard University, 1995), 25.

[19]  Paul G. Hiebert,  Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues  (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994).

[20]  Deleuze and Guattari,  A Thousand Plateaus;  Rosi Braidotti,  Nomadic Theory: The Portable Rosi Braidotti  (New York: Columbia University, 2011).

[21]   Braidotti,  Nomadic Theory , 35 .

[22]   Deleuze and Guattari,  A Thousand Plateaus , 21 .

[23]   Deleuze and Guattari,  A Thousand Plateaus .

[24]   Paul Woods, “Nomadic Missiology? Bringing Braidotti’s Thought into the Conversation about the Future of Cross-Cultural Mission,”  Transformation  34 (December 2017): 301–10.

[25]  Mikhail Bakhtin,  Toward a Philosophy of the Act  (Austin: University of Texas, 1993), 12.

[26]  Bakhtin,  Toward a Philosophy,  18.

[27]  Caryl Emerson,  Critical Essays on Mikhail Bakhtin  (New York: G K Hall, 1999).

[28]  Alastair Renfrew,  Mikhail Bakhtin  (London: Routledge, 2015), 34.

[29]  Mikhail Bakhtin,  Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics  (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota), 53.

[30]  Bakhtin,  Toward a Philosophy, 32–33; Renfrew,  Bakhtin, 37.

[31]  Bakhtin,  Dostoevsky’s Poetics, 18, 40.

[32]  Valentin  Voloshinov,  Marxism and the Philosophy of Language  (New York: Seminar, 1973), 94.

[33]  Wright, “How Can the Bible be Authoritative? ,”  11.

[34]   Andrew Walls, “The Rise of Global Theologies,”  lecture given at the 2011 Wheaton Theology Conference, “Global Theology in Evangelical Perspective,” Wheaton College, 7–9 April 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnlt1EJFju8 (accessed 25 June 2019).

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