“The tension between our own
cultural narratives and those of the gospels”
A review of
Culture, Inculturation, & Theologians:
A Postmodern Critique
By Gerald A. Arbuckle.
Reviewed by Kevin Book-Satterlee.
Culture, Inculturation, & Theologians:
A Postmodern Critique
Gerald A. Arbuckle.
Paperback: Liturgical Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
I happened to be walking down the dusty, pot-holed streets of Lusaka, Zambia. The entourage of children surrounding me – a white, male North American – complete with the baby wrapped to my back like the local women was a spectacle. I entered another culture, passionate for the Kingdom and gave hope to the disregarded. Some would call this inculturation – living out the conviction of the Gospel within culture – but there for a short time, I did not inculturate the Gospel into those Lusaka streets. I knew nothing of cultural sensitivity and despite making orphans smile, teenagers laugh and adults stare in disbelief, I did not truly present the Gospel to this culture. Inculturation does not happen in this way.
Instead, my example of inculturation was a Zambian man who joined us in the parade of orphans. He did not wear an orphan strapped to his back like I did, but he did demonstrate God’s love for children and God’s preferential option for the poor. This man, against cultural norms, paid attention to the orphans and cared for them. His is an example of legitimate inculturation.
Gerald Arbuckle, in his book, Culture, Inculturation and Theologians: A Postmodern Critique, writes, “In the drama of inculturation people are telling their stories of what it means for them to wrestle with the tension between their own cultural narratives and those of the gospels.” (183) Inculturation is the truth of the Gospel interacting in culture. Furthermore, culture is not static; therefore inculturation does not happen in a predetermined, lifeless environment. The premise of Arbuckle’s book is to debunk the legend of the modernist fixed culture, and to create space for dynamic inculturation of the Gospel.
Arbuckle is the codirector of Refounding and Pastoral Development, which conducts research for ministry in Australia. He holds a PhD in cultural anthropology from Oxford, consulting and writing on ministry in the postmodern world.
Arbuckle writes in his introduction, “This book particularly focuses on clarifying the meaning of culture because an accurate understanding of the concept is crucial to effective inculturation.” (xx) He continues stating that cultures are fragmented (xxi) and dynamic. Cultures cannot be defined, in the modernist definition, as homogenous and without external influences. In this book, he “builds on athropologists’ dramatic rethinking of the nature of culture in significantly new ways.” (xxiv)
Nine of the eleven chapters in Arbuckle’s book are dedicated to the postmodern exploration of the nature of culture; his final two chapters discuss inculturation in postmodern culture. Chapter 1 gives a concise overview to the differences between the modern and postmodern definition of culture. Arbuckle summarizes Emile Durkheim, the father of cultural anthropology, stating:
Durkheim believed that cultures are like the body of an animal. The purpose of each organ is to contribute to the unity and order of the whole body. So also in cultures: institutions or social structures exist to maintain order and the survival of cultures. (3)
In the modern sense, culture is conservative or preservative, always seeking homogenization. A postmodern definition of culture, in contrast, states that “chaos, not order, [is] at the center of cultures.” (5) Postmodern definitions of culture fall into two categories, the anti-functionalism or the poststructuralism. Anti-functionalism promotes culture as a sense of meaning rather than as a form for function. Poststructuralism rejects the definition of culture from a structured, predetermined life for a life subjected to chaos.
The following eight chapters examine various definitions of cultures. Chapter 2 analyzes culture as symbols and myths. Arbuckle quotes from Joy Hendry: “We are still expressing ourselves through symbols that are intelligible to society; otherwise we simply could not communicate.” (19) Symbols and myths are tools of communication, but both symbols and myths change over time and are appropriated for cultural changes. Chapter 3 defines culture as the use of power and dominance. Arbuckle uses the works of Michel Foucault (Power/Knowledge), and Mary Douglas (Purity and Danger), to argue how cultures classify weakness and impurity. He uses this chapter to demonstrate how the church is culture-bound and limited in its definitions of power and impurity. Chapter 4 stems from chapter 3 and analyzes culture as defined by social exclusion. Chapter 5 discusses culture within the clash of metanarratives. Narratives drive identity, but individuals and societies have many interconnected narratives which can be appropriated or discarded depending on context. Chapter 6 observes culture as ritualization. “[W]ithout ritual [people] would be unable to communicate with each other and all creativity would cease.” (81) Cultures set boundaries for creative exploration. Chapter 7 examines the multicultural process of culture and the various subcultures within a culture, reminding the reader that culture is not homogenous, but fragmented. (100)
Chapters 8 and 9 discuss culture and religion, giving particular attention to Arbuckle’s Roman Catholic faith. Chapter 8 is a chapter of particular note, analyzing culture as religious symbols. Arbuckle draws three notable conclusions about religion and culture:
- “Religions are not something purely otherworldly, because they are encased in cultures of their own making. Religions have their own cultures, influence other cultures and are influenced by them.”
- “A religious culture must be able to respond to people’s needs; otherwise it becomes irrelevant, a museum piece.”
- “Since all cultures are inherently conservative and resistant to change, religious cultures are slow to be proactive when confronted with people’s changing needs.” (123-124)
He concludes this chapter, stating, “This is a rich time in potentiality for refounding the church…Conditions could not be better.” (137) He moves into Chapter 9, where he analyzes ecclesial documents from Vatican II, their cultural openness but modernist definition of culture. He concludes this chapter taking aim at the Roman Catholic Church, that its focus on church structure is modernist and uninculturated. For Arbuckle the church should be focused on Christ.
Chapters 10 and 11 move from defining culture to understanding inculturation. Chapter 10 looks at Jesus as the teacher for inculturation. Arbuckle demonstrates Jesus’s astute nature of inculturating the Gospel by examining the gospel stories of the blind beggar Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52) and the women at the well (John 4:1-42). He shows Jesus as a master in inculturation – listening, person-centering, collaborative, liberating, open to learn, willing to dialogue, accepting diversity and storytelling. He is also a master at functional substitution, which is, “a process whereby over a lengthy period of time a Christian meaning is gradually substituted for a non-Christian symbol, myth or ritual.” (164)
Arbuckle’s final chapter, Chapter 11, notes the challenges of inculturation. Cultures create obstacles to meaning, distorting inculturation. Syncretism also hampers inculturation. Arbuckle explains that while the institutional church despises syncretism, anthropologists expect it and see it as unavoidable. He offers, “At no point in time is there ever a pure Christianity.” (184) He concludes the chapter and the book by reiterating that culture is born from chaos (postmodern) and not from order (modern). The process of inculturation in a particular culture may not be foreseeable, but as one understands the culture, inculturation is possible. It may take decades because it causes “radical changes in people’s traditional mythology…[a]nd of course conversion is never certain.” (185)
Dr. Peter C. Phan praises the book, writing, “This is a landmark book, and the future of Christianity and Christian mission may well depend on how its proposals are taken seriously and put into practice.” (back cover) I agree. While the church is God’s, its responsibility is to engage culture. Without accepting the vibrancy of culture and cultural change, inculturation lacks relevancy; in fact it is not inculturation, but proselytation. Arbuckle’s book is academic and practical. He explains postmodern anthropology and provides solid theological reflection at the end of each chapter.
One criticism of the book is its lacking definition of inculturation. At the end of the book, Arbuckle describes the differences between enculturation, acculturation and inculturation, the first two being anthropological terms and the final being theological. However in describing the differences, he omits actually defining inculturation. I found myself reading the book with an unclear definition of inculturation and often superimposed the definition of enculturation over the theological underpinnings of inculturation.
Arbuckle’s approach to Jesus’s modeling of inculturation also is written from his own cultural constructs on faith. The examples that Arbuckle draws from are buttressed by Western egalitarianism and individualism. A reader from another culture may not see these examples as inculturation. Arbuckle’s book addresses this relative puzzle; it is the very reason he wrote the book. Faith cannot be divorced from culture, and each culture inculturates the Gospel, not perfectly but adequately.
The book is a fantastic primer for inculturation and mission. It will serve as a challenging text book and stretching field manual. While written for Roman Catholics, missionaries from every aspect of the Christian faith would do well to appropriate the concepts developed in Culture, Inculturation and Theologians.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com