The importation of cultural practices from outside has made Christianity a foreign religion in many lands, and alienated Christians from their own peoples and cultures. It is this foreignness and not the offense of the Gospel that has often kept people from following Christ. We must be careful not to confuse the two. - Paul G. Hiebert
Growing up as a Christian in a largely non-Christian family, my grandfather constantly reminded me that it was okay for me to accept a different religion, but that it was not acceptable to 走火入魔 (Chinese idiom which means to be obsessed and go overboard), and have my mind corrupted by western ideas. He saw, and still sees, Christianity as a foreign religion with a foreign God. This view is not uncommon amongst many Chinese in Singapore, especially those of the older generation. Many view Christian beliefs and practices as antithetical to Chinese cultural practices. “How can I follow a foreign god?” my grandmother once asked me, “What will happen to our ancestors if no one offers incense?”
For many, religious and cultural practices are seen as one and the same. With the influence of Confucianism, many Chinese families emphasise filial piety and the importance of respecting and honouring one’s parents and elders as a key virtue. Such respect does not simply mean taking care of one’s parents while they are still living; it extends to practices such as burning incense and joss sticks to the dead so as to provide for them in the afterlife. For some Christians in non-Christian families, the failure to adhere to such practices is seen not only as a rejection of traditional cultural practices, but also disrespect to one’s elders.
In the book Seeing Jesus from the East, the authors, Ravi Zacharias and Abdu Murray, look at the person of Jesus through Eastern cultural lenses. They point out that Jesus was a Jewish man who lived in an Eastern world, though the story of His gospel is universal. The universal message of the gospel is a reminder that the good news speaks into all cultures and worldviews. Christianity is not simply a foreign religion that seeks to colonise local cultures and practices; rather, the gospel speaks universally and is contextualised in practice to be culturally relevant, yet without compromising the truths of the message.
For local Christians in Singapore, there are many situations in which traditional customs continue to be practised, including but not limited to:
Celebratory events, such as Chinese New Year, in which some families do not sweep their homes on the first day of the new year so as not to sweep out the good luck;
Funeral rites and practices and related activities, such as burning incense, joss sticks and joss papers;
Purchase of new homes and the practice of rolling in a pineapple to welcome good fortune; and
Seventh month hungry ghost festival, during which people avoid staying out late for fear of meeting the souls of the dead.
Which customs and practices can be carried on by believers? Should such customs be rejected altogether, or modified? Is there any real harm with continuing with some seemingly innocuous practices? How should Christians respond if there is intense family pressure to continue with certain practices that appear antithetical to our faith?
There is no simple answer to these questions. In finding answers to these questions, it is important that we consider not only the visible actions of such cultural practices and customs, but also the underlying beliefs and worldviews driving such actions, and examine them in light of Scripture. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Christians can come to honour God within our varied cultures, recognising that God is glorified in the multitude of tongues and languages and peoples and cultures.
The author attended a virtual Culture Meets Scripture workshop. It was organised and conducted by Jo Shetler, a Scripture Engagement consultant, and Amy West, a senior Scripture Engagement consultant, both with SIL International. The workshop was spread over seven weekly sessions (total of about 20 hours).
Joanne Shetler’s account of her years translating the New Testament for the Balangao people: And the Word Came with Power, Wycliffe Bible Translators, 1992.
Paul G. Hiebert, “Critical Contextualisation”, In Missiology: An International Review, Vol. XII, No. 3, July, 1984.
Contextualisation: Culture in the Light of Scripture, https://www.wycliffe.sg/blog/contextualisation-culture-light-scripture
Images from Wikimedia Commons