Book Review: The Gospel in Human Contexts

Summary

The Gospel in Human Contexts is a three part nine-chapter book that takes an in depth look at the role of anthropology in contemporary missions. Author Paul G. Hiebert shows his expertise as he methodically lays a theoretical foundation in chapters one through three, exegetes human behavior in chapters three through seven, and the intersection between mission and anthropology in chapters eight and nine.

In part one Theoretical Foundation Paul Hiebert lays the ground work of the book by showing the significance of anthropology in the role of missions. From the onset in chapter one Hiebert identifies a key weakness Westerners bring in to cross cultural missions, “We fail to recognize that many of the assumptions and values that underlie our culture are not biblically based. They are our human creations.”(p. 17) The remainder of the opening chapter walks through the different types of contextualization mindsets Christians bring to cross-cultural missions. Chapter two focuses on the role systematic and biblical theology play in forming a well-rounded missional theology.

Part two consists of the majority of the work and goes through the role anthropology plays in understanding human behavior and various system and research approaches in understanding both individuals and entire people groups. Paul Hiebert is able to demonstrate his expertise in the field of anthropology as he explains in depth the history and recent theories in the field of anthropology.

In part three Hiebert brings together the world or theology and anthropology to show how both fields work together to holistically form a missionary to be able to confidently know God’s word, and be able to accurately contextualize it. The final chapter of the book is essentially a summary of the preceding eight chapters. It serves primarily as a refresher concerning all the content discussed.

Analysis

The Gospel in Human Contexts has three strengths, they are; it is essentially a popular level textbook, is packed with an abundance of useful content, and does a phenomenal job explaining the work necessary to attain solid gospel contextualization. Ironically, this first strength dealing with the popular level reading of such academic content is also one of the books biggest weaknesses, which will be discussed in detail below. In nine chapters Paul Hiebert is able to pack so much technical content in to a easy to understand manner. One key area where Hieberts ability to take a difficult concept and express it to an easy to understand way is seen in chapter five, Recent Anthropology. After spending time walking through the history of modernism, and then post modernism, Hiebert is able to synthesize a wealth of information in to two easy to understand sentences. Hiebert says, “In radical postmodern thinking, there is no basis for understanding truth (theology) and no way to determine whether what we know is true (epistemology). The result is theological relativism.”(p. 17) Throughout the book the author intuitively adds a diagram to show the concept, or summarizes in an easy to understand way.

Because so much rich content is packed in to nine relatively short chapters this book more so than most on the same topic is full of quotable content. Throughout the time this writer was reading the book I found myself referencing time and again in different conversations and on multiple topics. For example, chapter three Changing Images covers so much history that chapter alone provided valuable information in conversations on colonialism, racism, and practical implications regarding a theological understanding on man being made in the image of God. In having a conversation about racism with a few fellow pastors I shared a statement that really stuck with me in the book. It was, “What counts in racism is not so much what people are or think, but what they are shaped to be and think. Social identities are not only mental images of self and other; they are social constructs based on contests involving concrete political issues…”(pg.69) Just this statement created a robust dialogue among peers who come from different economic and ethnic backgrounds. Though only chapter three was discussed in making this point it is worth noting that every chapter provides the same quality content.

Finally, no other work on cross-cultural missions has in this writer’s opinion done as fantastic a job as The Gospel in Human Contexts in presenting the level of study required to contextualize the gospel. What this book is uniquely able to do is build an argument through all nine chapters showing the reader piece by piece the level of research, understanding, and areas of expertise needed in contextualization. Especially, in chapter nine when the author walks through a summary of everything covered in the preceding eight chapters it puts back in the mind and lap of the reader the weightiness of what goes in to effectively taking the gospel cross-culturally. Hiebert shares his sentiment early on in the book regarding the need for such in-depth study. He says, “We need to learn how to live in a multicontext world, to build bridges of understanding and relationship between different contexts, and to judge between them.”(p.18) In a world that continues to become increasingly globalized the work of contextualization is needed more so now than ever before in history.

Where The Gospel in Human Context struggles is in three areas, those areas are; though packed with a wealth of content the book can become overwhelming, the book spends too much time focus on historical anthropology, and tends to lack steps that go beyond academic and theoretical. As stated above the irony of this book is how one of its greatest strengths is also one of its greatest weaknesses. Though the book is written at a popular level, because there is so much information packed in to every chapter, at certain points getting through a chapter feels like a daunting task. Admittedly, this happens primarily in part two Exegeting Humans, which is also where this writer came in to the book with the least amount of knowledge. That being said one place where the book becomes overly technical and dense is in the chapter entitled A Systems Approach. In thirty pages this chapter covers concepts such as integrating multiple perspectives, systems, social structures, levels of social organization, societal categories, dimensions of societal systems, cultural systems, levels of culture, material culture, patterns of behavior, and spiritual systems. This chapter could have easily been broken down in to two or even three smaller easier to digest chapters.

Which brings up the next weakness being the chapter entitled Historical Anthropology. So much of chapter two and three already walk through different aspects of history both theologically and anthropologically, an entire chapter dedicated to historical anthropology becomes overkill. At the end of the chapter Hiebert makes the statement, “We of the West are in danger of bringing a gospel that is purely information to be believed rather than a way of life to be lived.”(p.99) This reader couldn’t help but see the irony of the warning the author is giving about making the gospel purely informative at the end of a chapter that was bloated with information that was accurate but unnecessary in accomplishing the authors goals.

Finally, The Gospel in Human Contexts ability to be a popular level textbook has one significant weakness, which is it lacks practical steps for the reader. It is clear that the sciences of anthropology and theology are necessary and should be studied in depth. However, apart from seeking higher level credential to attain the level of understanding the author has, there is lacking practical steps a layperson can or should take. Even for this reader the book has been an overall positive experience to read, however I do not feel comfortable using it as a developmental resource in my congregations precisely because it lacks any practical takeaways.

Conclusion

            In conclusion, The Gospel in Human Contexts serves as a great resource to introduce a new pastor or church staff seeking to better understand gospel contextualization a popular level introduction. This book can and should be used by pastors as a resource that is regularly visited as a reference in leading a church or missionary team in to greater cross-cultural understanding. Where it lacks in being overly dense and hard to process is does still serve as a great reference book. This writer will definitely use it as a reference resource but will assuredly never voluntarily read through the entire text cover to cover, doing so inevitably takes away from deep resource this book can be.

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