Ethical Implications of Contextualization: Part 3/6: Contextualization and the Ethics of Communication

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The following is Part 3 of a 6 part series:


Ethics and Translation

C.S. Lewis once wrote in a letter: “Odd, the way the less the Bible is read the more it is translated.” This is very often the case. Guided by some promoters of contextualization, much of what we today call translation, however, goes far beyond the meaning of the term. In zeal to make the gospel known, some “translators” have been misguided by the faulty human wisdom of modern contextualization and have turned to twisting and editing the plain words of scripture. They have done so, apparently, in order to lessen the offense and ease the acceptance of scripture by what they judge to be a hostile audience.

Muslim critics have long accused Christians of having twisted and changed the word of God to suit their needs. Christians, they argue, do not honestly translate the scriptures but instead make “versions” to suit their desires. Although this is a great exaggeration 1, sadly, some contextualists are proving their case.

To attempt a translation, regardless of what you are translating, requires a certain integrity and carries a great responsibility. You are representing someone else’s thoughts and expressions. You must speak for them. Imagine if a mere translator at the UN decided that he could improve upon the ideas of the Head of State for whom he is translating! How much more sober is the responsibility of the Bible translator.  To render the words of God is no light matter! How then can some play fast and loose with some of the essential and core concepts in the Bible?

In articles written over several years 2 Rick Brown, a modern contextualist “Bible scholar and missions strategist” promotes a shocking strategy to overcome Muslim objections to the Bible. He advocates stripping the terms “Son of God” and “sons of God” from the pages of the scripture and replacing them with “Christ of God,” “Christ sent from God” or “Word of God.” 3

He argues that “Muslims have heard that Christians call Jesus the “offspring of God”, and that this has been presented to them repeatedly as Exhibit A in the case against Christianity and its “corruption” of the Bible.” He says, “there is a dire need to correct these misunderstandings and to invalidate the accusation in a timely manner. This can be done in communications of every sort, but by all means it should be done in the scriptures.” 4

With the wave of his hand Rick Brown wants to wipe away the greatest and most powerful images in all of God’s revelation to man, the Fatherhood of God, the begotten Sonship of Christ, and that Father’s invitation for us to be his children. 5

This is clearly far beyond the scope of a translator. The word ‘son’ has a simple, clear and easily understood meaning in every language on earth. The biological reality of reproduction means that every people group on earth has a word for ‘son’.

But what about the offense that Muslims take when they hear the phrase “Son of God”? A person may equally be offended when they learn that in Genesis 22:2, God asks Abraham to kill his own son. It may turn them off to the entire message of the gospel, but that does not give any translator the right to remove that passage and skip right from chapter 21 to 23.

Furthermore, God knew full well exactly how Muslims would take it. Not much differently, in fact, than the Jews themselves who were enraged that Jesus was called ‘Son of God’ 6. In John 5:18 the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; because “he was even calling God his own Father.” John 19:7 tells us that “the Jews insisted, “we have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” It was offensive to some Jews then, and in the same way, it is offensive to some Muslims now. But others are stunned at the revelation that God calls himself their Father. 7

Brown, by deeming himself worthy and capable of rewriting the scriptures and of improving on them, is not only being astoundingly presumptuous, he is also vastly overstepping the bounds of what can ethically be called a ‘translation.’ He has plainly moved into the realm of pushing an agenda of propaganda, even at the cost of the integrity of the scriptures themselves. In so doing, he risks validating the claims of “the case against Christianity and its ‘corruption’ of the Bible” that Muslims level against the Holy word of God.

You cannot rewrite the scripture to suit every circumstance or context.

Disingenuous Communication: An Ethical Breach

Imagine that a Peace-Corps volunteer has recently returned from Zimbabwe and is carrying in his pocket a banknote of $50,000,000 Zimbabwe Dollars, worth about one US Dollar. Suppose that he meets an attractive, business oriented woman at a coffee shop and tells her, “I have over $50,000,000 that I am free to invest. I would like to take you to dinner to further discuss your ideas.”

This, of course, would be an unethical method of getting to know that woman.

“But,” he may protest, “strictly speaking, it is a totally honest statement. It’s not a lie.”

It is unethical because it is a statement which he knows will be misinterpreted by his audience. It’s not a lie, but it certainly is a deception.

When contextualists such as John Travis (a pseudonym) advocate that new “believers” (he prefers not to use the term ‘converts’) use the term “Muslim” or “Muslim follower of Isa 8” to describe themselves and their religion, they usually justify it by pointing out a history of misunderstanding and confusion about the term “Christian.”

Travis writes: “In the Muslim context, the word “Christian” is now largely devoid of its original spiritual meaning. It now connotes Western culture, war (the Crusades), colonialism and imperialism.“

Bernard Dutch, likewise, argues against the term. “Muslim clerics have preached against Christianity for generations,” he says, “and fostered numerous malicious misconceptions about Christians.” 9

But rather than attempting to change negative perceptions and stereotypes, Dutch and Travis are prepared to abandon the term “Christian.” We are asked to consider “how different listeners will perceive [it]” But that does not go nearly far enough. Let us consider how Muslims will understand the alternative; calling yourself a “Muslim follower of Isa.”

Travis points out that the term ‘Islam’ is Arabic for ‘Submission’ [to God.]He argues that God’s “original plan for true Islam” was “obedience to Christ.“ Therefore, the argument goes, if “Muslim follower of Isa” means “one submitted in obedience to Christ,”  then no believer should have any trouble using that name.

But what does the ordinary Pakistani understand when she hears the word “Muslim”? To her, Muslim means Muslim.

Here we uncover a fatal double standard: when considering the word “Christian” we discard the original or true meaning of the term and focus on the perceptions of the hearer, but when considering the term “Muslim,” we ignore the common meaning and resort to semantics.

“With such negative perceptions of the church rooted in negative stereotypes of the West” Travis writes, “it’s little wonder that “joining Christianity” is often seen by Muslims as betraying one’s family and community to join the heretical camp of their enemies.

Yes, this is hard, and it is tragic. But the scripture makes it clear. There are two camps, the children of darkness and the children of the light. Does your family see you as “betraying” them to come to Christ? Jesus told us in Matthew 10:21 that it would happen: “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”

Christ also said in Luke 14:26 that “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters — yes, even his own life — he cannot be my disciple.”

It is very hard for a Westerner to understand why Jesus said this. But any Muslim convert who has had his mother, in tears, tell him, “you hate me by what you have done!” will understand.

Awesome
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Notes:

  1.  I often point out to my Muslim friends that when Christians find a textual variant in manuscripts of the Bible, they make a footnote. But when Muslims find a textual variant in manuscripts of the Qur’an, they make a bonfire.
  2. “The Son of God” Understanding the Messianic Titles of Jesus, International Journal of Frontier Missions, Vol. 17:1 Spring 2000; Delicate Issues in Mission Part I: Explaining the Biblical Term ‘Son(s) of God’ in Muslim Contexts, IJFM Vol. 22:3 Fall 2005; Delicate Issues in Mission Part II: Translating the Biblical Term ‘Son(s) of God’ in Muslim Contexts, IJFM 22:4 Winter 2005.
  3.  IJFM 22:4 pg. 143.
  4.  IJFM 22.3 pg. 95.
  5. Staggeringly woeful arguments are made on the way to this conclusion such as the wholesale dismissal of the Gospel of John, and all but the “high Christological” passages of Paul, as well as piles of Arabic idiomatic expressions, but space does not permit a more in-depth refutation of his arguments.
  6. John 10:33-35,
  7. “I Dared to Call Him Father” by Belqis Sheik is one touching example.
  8. Messianic Muslim Followers of Isa – IJFM Vol. 17:1 Spring 2000.
  9. Should Muslims Become“Christians”? – IJFM Vol. 17:1 Spring 2000.
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About Author

Andre Houssney is a Lebanese American with many years of global ministry experience. From an early age he has engaged international students including Muslims. Having lived in Lebanon and Egypt and traveled in over 30 countries, Andre has a wealth of knowledge of cross cultural issues in relation to missions. His studies in Ethnomusicology have prepared him well to help national believers to produce ethnic worship music. Among others, he has worked on projects in Sudan, North Africa, Lebanon and Kosova. For the last 12 years Andre has been on staff with Horizons International with numerous responsibilities not the least of which is teaching in the Engaging Islam seminars in various locations nationally and globally.Andre has a passion to see the missionary movement restored to its biblical roots. Andre is also president of Sambah Naturals, a mother company for Zambian Soap company and Zambeezi organic lip balm http://www.sambahnaturals.com/

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