Don’t hold me to it; more aptly don’t hold him to it, but I think this is a one sentence summary of the Rev. James Alan Waddell’s 2005 magnum opus The Struggle to Reclaim the Liturgy in the Lutheran Church.  This work is well-worth ready even though he shoots down many of my favorite arguments for the historic liturgy. Actually, this isn’t all that painful because I’m use to it.  What is painful is that this liturgy ace sends many of my LCMS heroes spiraling to the ground as well.  To my knowledge no one has answered the Rev. Waddell.  This post won’t either.  I’m still researching his work.  And by the way when/if I do answer him, having been taken to task on this score by another, I promise I won’t use his last name as a launching point.  But don’t you know it’s tempting.

This is the definition of and justification for inculturation in the 2006 Oxford History of Christian Worship “’Inculturation is the incarnation of the Christian life and message in a concrete cultural situation, in such a way that not only is the experience expressed with elements typical of the culture in question …but also that this same experience transforms itself into a principle of inspiration, being both a norm and a unifying force, transforming and recreating this culture…’”   “Every genuine attempt in church history to have the message and life of the Gospel appropriated into the lived experience of a given culture can be said to have been inspired by the spirit of inculturation” (683, emphasis mine).

The best argument for inculturation comes from this story out of Africa.  An African tells of an Irish Catholic priest celebrating mass in his village.  “When he presided at the Eucharist, he turned his back to the people and then bowed again and again – a gesture that was considered an insult to the villagers, who were accustomed to bow low for dogs to clean them up after they had relieved themselves in the forest.” (Ibid., 678)  Still I wouldn’t argue that the liturgical gesture of bowing or the  orientation of the celebrant needed to be dropped or changed only explained.  The priest isn’t offering you his buttock but God his adoration.

When I arrived in Detroit, I found a neighboring confessional Lutheran pastor using decidedly un-Lutheran Sunday School material.  I asked him why?  He said it was the only material he could find that showed black people.  I struggled with this at the time, and still do. The Last Supper by Mr. LI, Jinxing depicts all the participants including Jesus as Asians. (Ibid., plate 26).  Baby Jesus and Mother Mary have long been depicted according to local culture, and you can argue that this happened among Renaissance painters first.

My struggle continued when a missionary to New Guinea told me that in translating the Bible into the local language they had a problem with Jesus being the Bread of life.  Bread is not a staple of their diet, and if I remember correctly grains aren’t either grown there or used there (that much?).  So they translated Jesus saying, “I am the Sweet Potato of life.”  I should have asked, What then did you use in celebrating the Lord’s Supper?

This is the wall inculturation always hits.  There is an 18th century painting in a Peru cathedral which replaces the paschal lamb with a local guinea pig and The Oxford History of Christian Worship says it “is a gesture toward inculturation” (plate 26).  They may not have wheat in New Guinea, but I’m pretty sure they have lambs in Peru.  But the issue isn’t really about having a lamb in a painting but having the Lamb on the altar.  Back to Africa.

Among some of the indigenous people there drinking wine and laying on of hands rank high among their religious and cultural prohibitions.  The incluturists [if there is such a word] argue, “If the dynamics of culture are to be respected in such cases, it would be inconsistent with the nature of inculturation, to attempt to impose such foreign and ‘ungodly’ elements on a people.  Evangelical, pastoral, missionary prudence would require seeking out and assimilating other practices and elements that bear the marks of both authenticity and gospel spirit.” (Ibid., 685).  The writer goes on to say the issue is whether God has blessed Africa with holy enough elements for the Eucharist? Then he concludes,  “What is wrong with palm wine and millet bread” (Ibid., 689 emphasis mine)?

When germs were first discovered to be the cause of disease, in came shot glasses (Ibid, 618).  When alcohol was first “discovered” to be the cause of society ills by the Temperance League, out went the wine and in came the grape juice (Ibid., 618).  It wasn’t called inculturation, but that’s what it was.  The church adapted to culture and then even went so far as to adopt it.  So rather than being those who turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6), she has become upended by it.

But always there have been those standing on the bank of the river that is spewed out of the serpent’s mouth and readily swallowed by the world (Revelation 12: 15,16) saying, “No don’t jump in; the current is too strong; you’ll be swept away.”  You hear this voice even at the Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order in Montreal, 1963.  In the paper “Worship and the Oneness of Christ’s Church,” we read, “’We ought not to be so much concerned with adapting worship to the local culture that we forget that the culture itself is to be transformed’” (Ibid., 738).

I’m not saying that Rev Waddell is saying, “Jump.”  He would never say jump into what Satan spews, but neither would he say inculturation comes from Satan’s maw.  Is that what I’m saying?  Really smart people always answer a tough question with another question.  I’m not that smart, so I’ll say I know there is river that comes from Satan and is swallowed by the world.  Watch your step around that river, and if you happen to fall in (I surely have before.), don’t swallow.  And finally I don’t see the difference between the call to be contemporary and the call to incluturation.  The latter seems to be a five dollar word for the former.

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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One Response to Inculturation

  1. Bart Goddard says:

    To make a distinction between contemporary worship and inculturation, we could note that inculturation is the church reworking her symbols for the sake of people who, we suppose, can’t handle or understand the current symbols.
    Whereas, the call to contemporary worship is asking us to rework all the the current symbols for a group of worshipers who already understand them, accept them, grew-up with them. Contemporary worship isn’t inculturation, it’s “de-culturation”.

    Somewhere between “I became a Jew for the Jews” and “I opposed Peter to his face”, St. Paul found the answer to your struggle.

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