Christianity, Empire and the Spirit
(Re)Configuring Faith and the Cultural
- ISBN: 9789004357365
- Published By: BRILL
- Published: June 2018
The goal of Néstor Medina’s Christianity, Empire and the Spirit: (Re)configuring Faith and the Cultural is to show the complex dynamics of cultural processes and their crucial role in understanding and living out the Christian faith. Essential to the project is Medina’s critique of what he deems to be a problematic, narrow, modernist, and Eurocentric concept of “culture,” to the point that he thinks the term is “becoming increasingly unsustainable” (5). As an alternative, Medina offers “the cultural” to emphasize the rich, complex, changeable, unfinished/open-ended, dynamic, contested, fluid, and interconnected processes of culturalization (6). In his own words, this book is an attempt to “retrieve the role of the cultural in understandings of human existence, especially its pivotal role in the historical development of Christianity, and including the theological articulation of the relationship between Christianity and the cultural” (6–7).
The book contains eight chapters. In chapter 1, Medina gives a comprehensive overview of the cultural, describing in detail its ubiquitous, multifaceted, dynamic, and contested nature. To anticipate his arguments in the subsequent chapters, he posits not only that religion (and theology) and the cultural are intimately interconnected, but also that “both religious traditions and faith experiences are conditioned by and cannot take place outside the sphere of the cultural” (42). Having argued this, Medina attempts to show from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and early church documents how the cultural is at work in the formation of God’s people, the Bible itself, and the development of early Christianity (chapter 2). A detrimental effect of this development was the cooptation of Christianity by the Roman Empire culture and the emergence of the imperialistic “Western European civilization” as a cultural/ideological construct (chapter 3), which itself had extended negative ramifications for Protestant missions and evangelization up to the first half of the 20th century (chapter 4). With the geopolitical shift beginning at the end of the 19th century, namely the emergence of the United States of America as the “new empire,” Medina notes that many Western European and Euro North American scholars have re-engaged with the question of the relationship of Christianity and the cultural and moved toward a more interwoven understanding. Despite this positive development, however, Medina emphasizes that these scholars were still operating within their Western intellectual/cultural tradition. For them, “culture” was still synonymous with Western European civilization and “society” (187–88).
In chapter 5, Medina specifically discusses how scholars from different traditions and geographic locations have engaged with and reformulated the legacy of Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. While acknowledging their positive contributions, Medina argues that they tend to remain trapped in Niebuhr’s paradigm, which still keeps Christ and the cultural in “two different existential planes” (217). As a result, these authors are “unable to find in the cultural a place of divine outworking and theological reflection” (219). Chapter 6 surveys a sample of contemporary Protestant theologians to demonstrate “a significant shift away from static understandings of the cultural and from the cultural as entirely separated from the reality of the divine” (251) and the role of the World Council of Churches (WCC) as a catalyst for this shift. Chapter 7 then discusses the same shift in the Catholic Church, as evidenced in the gradual development of the concept of inculturation from the pre- to post-Vatican II era. The full theological implications of this concept are enormous, Medina believes, as it leads to a new understanding of revelation and the cultural as the locus of divine disclosure (303, 309).
It is not until the last chapter (chapter 8) that we finally read the theological reasoning behind Medina’s proposed approach to the cultural. Drawing from Latina/o (especially Orlando Espín), Pentecostal, decolonial, postcolonial, and liberationist theology, Medina links divine disclosure and the cultural pneumatologically, claiming that it is the Spirit who “animates the cultural mediation of the divine disclosure to humanity as well as the human response to the divine” (336). It is in the context of this pneumatological cultural kenosis that he then claims that “the divine self-disclosure is always culturally bound, mediated, and conditioned” (356), that the cultural is “the necessary means, conditions, and possibility of revelation,” and that “it is plausible to consider revelation as intrinsically and necessarily cultural” (357), as exemplified ultimately in the event of incarnation.
Medina has undoubtedly accomplished a lot in writing this book. With his de/postcolonial tools and through historical analysis, he has done a fine job deconstructing the overly simplistic concept of culture as well as unmasking the colonizing/imperialistic notion of culture that gives privileges to only “one universal culture.” In his account, “no cultural tradition holds a monopoly on the divine disclosure” (354); each particular culture has something important to contribute to our larger and richer views of the divine/the gospel, and hence the need for constant dialogue with one another. I couldn’t agree more. Another strong point of the book is Medina’s wide and well-researched engagement with different Christian traditions and theologians to better understand the history of the debates on the relationship between Christianity and culture (almost half of the book is dedicated to this). This alone is enough reason to make the book a go-to resource.
The most important contribution of this book should be obvious by now, namely, Medina’s claim that the cultural is the locus of God’s self-disclosure. This in itself is not a novel idea. What is unique about the claim, I suppose, is the epistemological and theological framework within which Medina places it. Unfortunately, this is perhaps the least developed part of the book, which inevitably raises some lingering questions. For example, how authoritative is the cultural? Medina seems to suggest at times that the cultural has the potential not only to condition and shape, but to change, the gospel message itself (305, 310). I wonder, then: in his overall scheme, how would Medina relate the authority of the cultural with the way he understands Christ’s authority as God’s self-revelation and the Bible’s authority as the document of revelation? And how would he understand these relationships pneumatologically? I believe his claim would have been better argued if he was more precise in clarifying these connections. It would have clarified not only the nature but also the telos of the cultural within the divine economy of revelation and redemption as Medina understood it. This suggestion aside, the book is a valuable contribution to the fields of theology, missiology, religious studies, and cultural studies, and surely deserves careful engagement by both emerging and seasoned scholars.
Fandy Tanujaya is a PhD student in systematic theology at Wheaton College, Illinois.Fandy TanujayaDate Of Review:August 31, 2022