EN 20: "to evangelize man's ... cultures"

Evangelii Nuntiandi 20:

20. All this could he expressed in the following words: what matters is to evangelize man's culture and cultures (not in a purely decorative way, as it were, by applying a thin veneer, but in a vital way, in depth and right to their very roots), in the wide and rich sense which these terms have in Gaudium et spes, always taking the person as one's starting-point and always coming back to the relationships of people among themselves and with God.

The Gospel, and therefore evangelization, are certainly not identical with culture, and they are independent in regard to all cultures. Nevertheless, the kingdom which the Gospel proclaims is lived by men who are profoundly linked to a culture, and the building up of the kingdom cannot avoid borrowing the elements of human culture or cultures. Though independent of cultures, the Gospel and evangelization are not necessarily incompatible with them; rather they are capable of permeating them all without becoming subject to any one of them.

The split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time, just as it was of other times. Therefore every effort must be made to ensure a full evangelization of culture, or more correctly of cultures. They have to be regenerated by an encounter with the Gospel. But this encounter will not take place if the Gospel is not proclaimed.

I remember reading EN back in grad school when I was studying for my MA in Theology and this passage really struck me as insightful. I think the relation between culture and the Kingdom is outlined quite accurately. They are not the same thing, but they are not mutually exclusive. Since the Kingdom is to flourish in the lives of men and women who inextricably live within their culture then the interaction of the Kingdom and culture is inevitable.

Moreover one could say that in fact the target of evangelization is not so much individuals, but the entire culture. This reminds me of Andrew Walls’ point that the Great Commission is about discipling “peoples,” not persons. I think we have really lost this aspect of evangelism in our day.

Regarding the ‘thin veneer’ I think of some rural places in Latin America where Christianity is like that: a thin veneer over a heart of paganism. This is unfortunate, but the challenge must always be faced. For Christians are always called to make choices that could mean to either compromise the Kingdom by discarding essential elements of its identity, or doing violence to the culture they are trying to evangelize by mutilating it needlessly.

We see this in MENA today as the debate about contextualization proceeds. In many ways it is a case of evangelicals fighting a battle that has been fought and settled before. But evangelical Christianity, despite its strengths, is well known for its lack of knowledge of church history. Evangelical Christian missionaries who suggest that a Muslim can follow Christ while still worshipping at the local mosque, reciting the shihada (‘No god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger’), and understand themselves to not be in the same body as traditional Christians is, in my opinion, applying a thin veneer.

The special challenge in MENA is that Arab culture is Islamic culture, and Islamic culture is Arabic: there is no separation. Islam does not fulfill cultures; it Arabicizes them because to live the sunna is to live like one specific Arab man in the 7th C. in the Arabian Penninsula.


E. Twist said…
What's your solution then?
Abu Daoud said…
I started writing a long answer but really, let me just outline an answer as I go along with the blogging of EN.

It really is the main question though. I do think a glimpse of it can be found in the correspondance between St Augustine of Canterbury and the pope at the time, which you can read online or check out in your copy of Documents of the Christian Church which I'm guessing you own.

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