I have two great loves in my professional life: one, ecclesiastical history, and two, Byzantine and Renaissance art. And curiously enough, these passions often intersect at critical junctures in my life. If I was to say, “God speaks to me through His word,” most Christians would say, “Fair enough, I can accept that.” But if I was to say, “God speaks to me through paintings,” I might encounter a rather different response.
I often wondered why Renaissance artists depicted Biblical narratives taking place in a local, contemporary context. Consider for example, Fra Angelico’s Descent from the Cross (1434), in which the artist portrays the body of Christ being lowered from the scaffold with the verdant Tuscan hills in the background and a medieval city that looks remarkably like Florence!
Or, Botticelli’s Annunciation (1489-90), in which the angel Gabriel greets a very European-looking Mary in a Tuscan palazzo, with the Arno River and the crenellated walls of Florence visible through a large picture window.
Or, Ghirlandaio’s Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherds (1485), in which three very Florentine-looking shepherds worship the Christ Child next to a manger made from a Roman sarcophagus (complete with inscription identifying its former occupant) under the roof of a shed supported by two elegant square Corinthian piers, while in the background the train of the Magi passes through a Roman triumphal arch bearing the inscription of Pompey the Great!
But one day, as I was sitting in Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, watching a film about the history of the Carmelite church and the world-famous Brancacci Chapel, the ‘penny dropped’ so to speak. The narrator explained that in the Middle Ages, many worshippers were illiterate. The only scriptures they could ‘read’ were the frescoes on the walls. Thus, depictions of Biblical stories and scenes from the life of Christ were valuable forms of religious instruction and useful aids in worship.
Moreover, by interfacing Biblical stories with local landscapes, the artist enabled worshippers to identify with these momentous events. It was not a case of ‘back then’ and ‘over there.’ These things were happening ‘right here’ and ‘right now.’ Jesus was healing the sick, casting out demons, suffering death, and triumphing in resurrection life in Florence!
Missiologists call this phenomenon ‘inculturation’ — the adaptation of Christian teachings and practices to local cultures. That is the essence of the incarnation, the Word becoming flesh — taking something that is eternal and invisible and transforming it into something we can recognise and identify with (John 1.14). The apostle John expressed it beautifully in his letter to the churches of Asia:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life — the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us — that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1.1-3).
“That which was from the beginning,” — eternal, otherworldly, beyond the apprehension of our five senses (1 Cor 2.9) — was manifested in a way that we could relate to. The Word became something that we could see with our eyes, touch with our hands, and feel with our emotions. He became Immanuel — God who is one of us — in order that we might know him intimately (Mat 1.23; Phil 2.6-7).
Examples of inculturation from the New Testament
The birth of the Church was heralded by an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on 120 disciples in an upper room in Jerusalem and the proclamation of the gospel to thousands of Diasporic Jews who had gathered to celebrate the Festival of Shavuot (Pentecost). One of the most significant aspects of this event was that they all heard the wonderful works of God expounded in their native dialects.
And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together and were confused because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were all amazed and marvelled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs — we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.” (Acts 2.5-11)
It is important to note that the disciples did not just preach the gospel in Aramaic (the language commonly used in 1st century Judea). Under the Holy Spirit's inspiration, they proclaimed God's wonderful works in more than a dozen languages. This tells us one thing: in its most primitive form, the gospel was adaptable to different customs and cultures. Why? Because every person needs to hear the gospel in his or her own ‘language’ — in a way they can understand.
The greatest missionary/evangelist in the history of the Christian Church, Saul of Tarsus, also known by his Greek name, Paulus, epitomised the adaptability of the gospel. Writing to the cosmopolitan church that he had established in Corinth, Paul testified:
“For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law; that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you” (1 Cor 9.19-23).
Clearly, Paul was willing to go to any length to enter the world of others and proclaim the gospel, so long as it did not violate God’s moral and ethical principles. He ate with Gentiles, lived with Gentiles, and travelled with Gentiles in order to reach new regions and cultures with the message of God’s salvation (2 Cor 10.16). His maxim was to “make all people see and understand” (Eph 3.9).
Paul would often utilise aspects of local culture in his proclamation of the gospel. For example, when Paul visited the great city of Athens, one of the most famous centres of wisdom, architecture, and art in the Greco-Roman world, he did not quote from the Hebrew Scriptures, which would have been unfamiliar to his Greek audience. Instead, he said to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers,
“As I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you …” (Acts 17.23)
Paul seized upon something that the Athenians could see with their eyes, understand with their minds, and identify with as a characteristic of their culture, and used it as a ‘stage prop’ in his presentation of the gospel. Similarly, Paul illustrated his argument about the relationship of human beings to the Creator God by citing two Greek poets, Epimenides the Cretan and Aratus the Cilician:
“He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising” (Acts 17.26-29).
Even the Four Gospels addressed four different cultural situations in the 1st-century Roman world. When it came to recording the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, it was not a case of “one size fits all.” Matthew wrote for a predominantly Jewish audience and hence, emphasised Jesus’ role as Son of David, the Son of Abraham, and the Messianic King. Matthew demonstrated that Jesus fulfilled the Law of Moses many of the prophecies of the Old Testament.
Mark wrote for a Gentile, and especially Roman audience, and hence, presented a concise history of the ministry of Christ, culminating in his atoning death on the Cross. Mark emphasised the self-giving love of Christ and encouraged a persecuted church living under the threat of death to draw strength from his example.
Luke wrote for a high-ranking and presumably well-educated official named Theophilus, and hence, presented a carefully researched and historically accurate account of Jesus’ ministry. Luke emphasised that Jesus is not just the deliverer of the Jews but the Saviour of the whole world.
John wrote for a Christian audience in the Roman province of Asia who were combating an early form of Gnosticism, and hence, emphasised Jesus’ role as the Logos (the sum of divine intelligence and the ultimate expression of God). John also stressed the importance of believing in Christ in order to participate in eternal life.
Examples of inculturation from Church history
With the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, which gave Christianity legal status, and the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 AD, which recognised the Catholic orthodoxy of Nicene Christians as the state religion of the Roman Empire, Christianity lost the ability to adapt to diverse cultures. Instead, it became the vehicle for a culture — the culture of Rome. To become Christian was to become Roman, which often entailed abandoning one’s own customs, traditions, and values.
This attitude of cultural superiority has continued to tarnish Christian missions through the centuries. (Think: the Spanish in the 17th century, the British in the 19th century, or the Americans in the 21st century). We seem to think that preaching the gospel means imposing our culture on uncivilised barbarians, as though our culture is somehow more enlightened and innately Christian!
Indeed, what we call church planting often resembles a franchise model of business expansion more than an organic manifestation of the kingdom of God in a local community. (Do you want fries with that?) True inculturation, on the other hand, warrants a contextualisation of the gospel, leading to a local, indigenous expression of the Church.
When John had a vision of the Church in heaven, he saw a great multitude consisting of people from every ethnic group, tribe, race, and language (Rev 7.9). Even though they were clothed with white robes, and held palm branches in their hands, and praised God in unison, they still displayed some of the cultural distinctions that characterised their life on earth.
Culture does not need to be renounced; it needs to be redeemed. And thankfully, there have been exceptions to the rule, such as the Italian Jesuit priest, Matteo Ricci, who was the first European to enter the Forbidden City of Beijing in 1601 at the invitation of the Wanli Emperor of the Ming dynasty, due to his expertise as a mathematician, astronomer, and cartographer.
Ricci commenced his time in China by studying the language and customs. (He would eventually become one of the first Western scholars to master Chinese script and Classical Chinese). Noting the pervasive influence of Confucianism, Ricci decided to use existing Chinese concepts to explain Christianity. He acknowledged that the Chinese people had always believed in God, and declared that Christianity was simply the completion of their faith.
Although somewhat controversial in his methods, Ricci managed to cultivate relationships with important officials, Confucian literati, and leading members of the cultural scene and convert several of them to Christianity. He also established the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing, which is the oldest Christian church in the city.
In stark contrast, the identification of Christianity with European culture in the following centuries led to the demise of missionary activity in China. To this day, the Chinese Communist Party alleges that Christianity is the representative of Western cultural imperialism, and under this pretext, tries to force the Church to adopt a program of ‘Sinicization’, which, in effect, means supporting the Party’s ideology and objectives.
We usually think of prophecy in terms of foretelling, predicting the future, declaring things before they happen. However, the Hebrew word nabi, translated prophet, literally means ‘one who speaks at the direction of another’ — a spokesperson, herald, or announcer. For example, when Moses protested his inadequacy to speak to Pharaoh, the Lord said, “Aaron your brother shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and Aaron your brother shall tell Pharaoh to send the children of Israel out of his land” (Ex 6.30 – 7.2).
As Christians, we are called to speak on God’s behalf and at His direction — we are to represent Him in a way that people can recognise and identify with. Paul said, “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us” (2 Cor 5.20).
True prophecy is speaking on God’s behalf in a language that people can understand. As Paul observed, in a public gathering it is better to utter words that are easy to understand than to speak mysteries in a foreign language (1 Cor 14.9-11). The timeless and universal message of the gospel must be communicated in a colloquial manner.
This is what artists like Fra Angelico and Sandro Botticelli tried to do through their paintings, and this is what we are called to do through whatever means we have at our disposal: to diffuse the fragrance of God’s knowledge in every way and in every place! (2 Cor 2.14).