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Review: The Gospel in Human Contexts

Hiebert, Paul. The Gospel in Human Contexts: Anthropological Explorations for Contemporary Missions. 2009.
Reviewed by Evangeline Hester, Communications Assistant at CMS Australia


What is the gospel’s solution to post-modernism? If our own understanding of God is influenced by our own culture, how do we describe him to other cultures? What can we learn from centuries of secular study of culture about the way we should (or shouldn’t) approach mission? Which is deeper, our identity as humans, or as Christians?

The Gospel in Human Contexts is about marrying theology and anthropology. These two fields of study have been segregated into ‘spiritual’ and ‘secular’ for centuries. However, they trace a similar ribbon of influence over the modern west, bound deeply to the worldview of the time. Paul Heibert, an American missiologist, has contributed several books to these fields, and his work remains on reading lists for mission courses in Australia and globally.

Part 1 – Grappling with Contextualisation

The first section of the book reviews different approaches to contextualisation, linking the eras in which these schools of thought were most pertinent with linguistic theory of the time. It begins with an overview of Signs (a word, a picture, a symbol) and Signifiers (what the word, picture or symbol represents). This is a framework for studying how meaning and language and truth interrelate with each other in different cultures. Heibert uses this theory to expand doctrines of contextualisation between cultures. He describes each attempt of the Church at trying to keep close to the true gospel that every human language is ultimately limited in its understanding of.

Part 2 – Anthropology in the Western World

Part 2 takes us through a brief history of anthropology in the western world, and how that affected perceptions of the ‘Other’ and the role of mission. Colonialism was a rampage of injustice, but it was also the revival of global mission. Romanticism led to an empathy for the foreigner, but also continued in its racist paternalism. Modernism had the great equalisation of science, but lost sight of the spiritual. Postmodernism reawakened the value of the individual worldview, but at the cost of objective truth. Heibert hints also at what post-postmodernism might look like for our generation, but as this book was published in 2009, his theories about this would be better supplemented by more recent texts.

This is the one section where I would recommend caution—the age of the author is reflected in his mild bias towards Modernism and against Post-modernism. However, in general, the text does an excellent job of describing the modes of thinking of each period and the strengths and weaknesses of it relative to the gospel. Ultimately the same conclusion is reached—how can we create a metacultural, meta-theological framework in order to create unity between the different parts of the body of Christ?

Part 3 – Missionaries as intercultural mediators

As Paul Heibert’s final work, the true gold in this book is in its third section: a reflection on the role of missionaries as intercultural mediators. Heibert writes: “The Scriptures lead us to a startling conclusion: at the deepest level of our identity as humans there are no ‘others’—there is only us.” (p.188) By the end of the book the reader is forced to reflect—do we value cross-cultural missionaries only for their value in evangelism, or do we also appreciate the way that mission creates a Church that is constantly communicating, celebrating, and refining itself into one unified body?

A comprehensive overview of anthropological and missiological worldviews over the course of modern history, The Gospel in Human Contexts is a suitable handbook for how secular and spiritual understandings of culture and society have interacted over the centuries, with a view to how these fields of knowledge should inform the work of missions today. For the lay person or CMS supporter, this book distils many of the beauties of cross-cultural church culture into a framework that can be applied to the work of established church communities in Australia.