Book review: One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization, by Jackson Wu
Early on in his book, Jackson Wu asks, “Are we biblically faithful if our gospel message is not culturally meaningful?” This sets the tone for the entire book in three ways.
Relentlessly pointing to Scripture
First, Wu constantly refers back to the Bible and the overall testimony of Scripture as the foundation for how we understand the gospel of Jesus Christ; this challenges common evangelical assumptions which reduce the gospel to a series of propositions.
Relatedly, Wu challenges the commonly understood idea that systematic theology is the apex of theology and Christian scholarship; he calls the reader to re-examine the primacy of “biblical theology” (and its more narrative emphasis) over and against systematic theology (and its more propositional emphasis). One result of this is that the gospel is understood more in the light of the Old Testament narrative, and as more than a series of propositions. He proves this from multiple Scripture passages which contain the words “gospel” / “good news”.
Proposing a process for contextualization
Second, Wu offers a practical alternative to contextualization by proposing a systematic process; this is enormously important. Wu shows that contextualization is not simply an add-on for cross-cultural workers. No, contextualization actually begins with interpretation. I believe Wu’s approach may represent a paradigm-shift for the way most Christians and pastors think about theology and the gospel. Wu demonstrates conclusively—the way we think and do theology is unwittingly influenced by our own cultural values. And the fact that this has largely gone unexamined in the world Christian movement implies an urgent need—both to be faithful to Scripture, and to share the gospel in a way that is truly relevant to the host culture.
Note: Regarding Wu’s proposed contextualization process, I agree with Wu that his approach is practical. This does not, however, make it easy, and he says as much. The book includes diagrams and charts which help to make this contextualization process clear. But I think this material is truly innovative, and thus, difficult to follow at times. I want to reread these chapters in order for this to better sink in. Wu suggests that the process be applied in a theological or missional cross-cultural community of believers. Sounds good. But let’s also realize how unusual and difficult this is. This is where the book seems to point the reader to a standard of theological or missiological practice which seems extremely difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, Wu points us in the right direction and for this he is to be commended.
Articulating the gospel for Chinese culture
Third, Wu demonstrates how to meaningfully articulate the gospel for the Chinese cultural context. He uses the honor/shame dynamics common to Scripture and East Asian societies. Wu lovingly and carefully shows how the gospel can beautifully relate to the Chinese context. What is the impact on the reader? I was left with a strange thought: Wu’s contextualization of the gospel for the Chinese culture is actually more closely aligned with the overall testimony of Scripture than any presentation of the gospel I have ever seen before. It is a strange thought, contrary to my Western Christian sensibilities. But it makes sense in light of the fact that the Bible is an Eastern book rooted in the honor/shame cultural values of the Ancient Near East.
Moreover, this gospel-for-the-Chinese context also carries with it additional gravitas for Christians everywhere. Why? Because about 80% of the world’s people are collectivistic (like the Chinese context) rather than individualistic (as in the Western context). Therefore, anyone doing ministry among the collectivistic peoples of the Majority World has much to gain from Wu’s perspective.
Humility and hope
I was left with two impressions—humility and hope. This book challenges many evangelical assumptions about doing theology, presenting the gospel, and preparing for cross-cultural ministry. It has the effect of humbling the reader. “God help us! We have so far to go!”
But I also felt a strong hope. How exciting it is to ponder the fact that the Bible’s own honor/shame dynamics are closely aligned with the world’s least-evangelized peoples and populations. This book puts fuel on the fire of the global church to continue her work of blessing the nations through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
One Gospel for All Nations by Jackson Wu shows how the gospel we present can both be more faithful to Scripture and more relevant—perhaps more relevant than we ever imagined.