One in a series of "President's Perspectives" in which Dr. Richard J. Mouw discusses Fuller's core values.
One of my favorite books about the relation of the gospel to cultural realities is Kosuke Koyama’s delightfully titled Water Buffalo Theology.
There, the late Japanese-American theologian reflected on his
experience of being sent, early in his career, by his Japanese church as
a missionary to northern Thailand.
Koyama had spent most of his life up to that point
in urban settings, and suddenly he found himself in a place of many rice
paddies. As he rode around the countryside on his motor scooter, he
reported, he saw people whose lives involved many days of standing in
shallow water alongside water buffalo; then these days were followed by a
period in which they had to find some way of staying dry during the
onlaught of monsoon rains.
Koyama decided to read the Bible as if he were
standing alongside a water buffalo in a rice paddy. In doing so,
passages and images leaped out at him that he had never really thought
about before. He discovered that there is much in the Bible about water.
God rules from a place above the rains and the floods. God stays dry!
These themes came to loom large in his presentation of the gospel to the
people of that region.
At the end of his book, Koyama generalized on the
method he had been using in his efforts to understand what the Bible has
to say to the culture of northern Thailand. Missionaries, he said, must
find a place where they are “sandwiched between” the Bible and the
culture to which God has called them. They must then engage in a two-way
exegesis, working at two interpretive exercises: they have to interpret
the questions and answers of the culture in which they find themselves,
and then they must bring those questions and answers to the Bible, in
order to interpret anew what God has to say about such matters.
Koyama was getting at something that was often
ignored in the past by the church in its efforts to “get the message
out.” I read one account of missionaries in the nineteenth century who
tried to evangelize tribal villagers whose language the missionaries had
done very little to master. They would present some basic biblical
truths as best they could, and if the folks in that tribe did not
respond positively, they simply moved on to another village. They had no
way of knowing whether they had even succeeded in communicating about
what they wanted the villagers to understand. And they certainly had not
probed more deeply into the concerns and questions that dominated those
villagers’ lives. They paid little attention to the culture of the
folks they were trying to reach.
“Culture” as we understand it here is not simply the
sort of thing we associate with “cultured” people—the folks who
appreciate opera and quote Shakespeare. The word culture has the same
root as cultivate. Thus, agricul-ture is the cultivation of the agros,
Greek for “field”; horticulture is the cultivation of plants; and so on.
When we use the word culture to apply to human realities, we
are referring to the ways in which we human beings cultivate patterns
and processes that give meaning to our collective interactions, as well
as the things that we “grow” as a result of those interactions. Culture
is the basic “stuff” of collective human life: language, entertainment,
economic transactions, rituals, the patterns of family life, and much
more. All of this is what shapes our daily lives—and the lives of people
whom we want to reach with the gospel.
Fuller’s School of World Mission—now the School of
Intercultural Studies—was founded in 1965 to equip the church with
cultural understanding. The founders knew that an effective presentation
of the gospel had to draw upon the resources of language study, the
investigation of cultural practices, an understanding of the teachings
of other religions, and much more. These insights have now spread
throughout all of Fuller’s programs, so that our other two
schools—Theology and Psychology—are also working diligently to
understand the cultural contexts in which the graduates of our programs
will be serving.
We regularly offer theology-and-film courses that
bring faculty and students to major film festivals. (You can read about
one of those involvements in this issue.) They frequently report to me
that when people at those gatherings find out that they are from Fuller,
they ask, “What are folks from a seminary doing here?” The answer our
faculty and students give to such a question is that we see the study of
film as an important part of theological education.
Thinking theologically about film festivals is not
very different from reflecting on the culture of the water buffalo. The
entertainment industry is something like a very large rice paddy. What
comes from that rice paddy influences all of us—and not only those of us
who live in North America, but people all over the world. A year or so
ago, visiting with a Singaporean-Chinese family, I asked the 15-year-old
daughter whether her friends at school would know who Hannah Montana
is; she answered with an expression that would have had made Homer
Simpson proud: “Doh!”
The familiar Christmas carol puts it well in
speaking about the Savior’s birth at Bethlehem: “The hopes and fears of
all the years are met in thee tonight.” The “all the years” part of that
is extremely important. As he stood “sandwiched between” the Bible and
the day-to-day realities of rural Thailand, Kosuke Koyama was exegeting
the hopes and fears of the people who worked alongside water buffalo in
rice paddies. We too must do that exegeting, including the study of the
busy high-tech culture in which many of us find ourselves. Beneath the
canned laughter of the situation comedy, or the rantings of the tweets
and blogs that appear on the Internet, or the economic and relational
worries that keep people awake at night—just beneath the surface of all
of this are enduring hopes and fears that we must understand and address
if we are to bring the gospel to people who are immersed in the daily
life of our own culture.
In the kind of teaching, learning, and research that
takes place at Fuller Seminary, we can engage in this disciplined
exegesis of hopes and fears. In doing this, we are uniquely equipped at
Fuller to draw upon not only the best of biblical scholarship,
systematic theology, and church history, but also upon the resources of
psychology and intercultural studies.
And so, in addition to all of the other things that
seminaries typically do in their educational offerings, we show up at
film festivals, we sponsor guest lectures by business leaders, we study
the patterns of marriage and family relations—and we send our graduates
to the nations of the earth to bring the Good News of salvation. We do
all of this because we care about culture. More importantly, we do it
because we care about human beings who are shaped by the cultures in
which they live. And most importantly, we do it because we have heard
the call of the Savior who came into the world—a world characterized by
many hopes and fears—so that the people whom he came to rescue from sin
“might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John