Cross-Cultural Paul: Journeys to Others, Journeys to Ourselves

  • Charles H. Cosgrove, Herold Weiss, K.K. (Khioh-Khng) Yeo
  • Jan 1, 2006
  • Series: Volume 9 - 2006

Charles H. Cosgrove, Herold Weiss, and K. K. (Khioh-Khng) Yeo. Cross-Cultural Paul: Journeys to Others, Journeys to Ourselves. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2005. vii + 293 pp. Pap. $25.00. ISBN 0-8028-2843-4

Suppose you were teaching a course on Paul or a course for which Paul and his letters formed a significant portion of what was to be covered. Suppose, in addition to the standard introductory and exegetical issues, that you wanted to introduce students to issues of contextualizing Paul�s message for a variety of cultures in the First, Second and Third Worlds today, both in terms of finding points of common ground from which to begin a fuller gospel presentation and in terms of critiquing the most unbiblical portions of those cultures. What book would you turn to for such supplemental reading? I have not been aware of the existence of any such book in print in the English language�until this fall.

Cosgrove teaches New Testament and ethics at Northern Baptist Seminary in Illinois and represents white American baby boomer culture but has immersed himself in African-American culture and reading as well. Weiss is an Argentinian-born German who has extensively studied Russian Orthodoxy. Yeo is Chinese but has spent considerable time interviewing Native Americans and living with them in Indian reservations. Each writer, therefore, composes two chapters, one relating the major themes of Paul�s teachings to his indigenous culture and one relating them to his �surrogate� or adopted culture. All three authors go out of their way to stress the provisional results of their enterprise and to assure members of their adopted cultures that they are not trying to prescribe the only ways that Paul might impinge on their contexts. But the results are extraordinarily enlightening and helpful, both in sketching the key cultural tenets of each of the six societies and in highlighting how Paul�s teaching might be brought to bear on those societies.

Weiss leads off by taking the reader to the rioplatense culture of Argentina (i.e., along the Plate River). The region also spills over into part of Uruguay. The gaucho (a rough equivalent to our cowboy) has been a central character for these rural plains, imbibing, however, a greater spirit of fatalism than has been characteristic of Americans. Talk of death comes easily here, because life has been hard and life spans short. But gauchos were generally seen as dispensers of justice and hospitality to keep life as fair and gracious as possible, too. As Argentina moved toward a centralized government, regional officials called caudillos began to supplant the gauchos in power. These were military men who were political despots in their regions, often above the law, so long as they kept their bosses in Buenos Aires happy. Survivors under such leaders then are often not those who study hard, work hard or are endowed with natural gifts or talents but the picaresque characters who shrewdly know how to work the system and grease the wheels to their advantage. These characters are called vivos, literally �alive ones.�

Paul�s theme of predestination finds points of contact with the determinist spirit of many Rioplatenses but qualifies it with his balancing emphasis on human freedom and responsibility. Paul�s vision for God�s people living in community, dependent on one another, likewise matches much in Argentinian tradition, but never to the extent of someone becoming above the law. �Paul would find very congenial the innate compassion and the hospitality of the gaucho� (p. 58) but would have to supplement it with the crucified Christ as the true source of any human being�s identity. This in part explains the attraction of the dying, bleeding Christ for traditional Latin-American Catholicism, but it too needs to be balanced with a greater emphasis--on the victory of the resurrection.

Cosgrove bats second and tackles suburban American individualism. A very astute and nuanced chapter ultimately boils down to him finding �Pauline resonances with the American tradition of human rights and important Pauline challenges to American ideals of economic self-reliance, personal freedom for self-realization, and �the pursuit of happiness� (p. 69). Overall six themes temper our individualism�Paul�s �God-sufficiency,� earning one�s own living (but for the economic independence of the Christian community), the church as an interdependent body, the collection for the needy Christians in Jerusalem, the exemplary dependence of the Son on his Father, and God�s gracious love in Christ.

An interesting sidebar involves the question of whether Paul would have envisaged our cherished right to freedom of religion. Cosgrove concludes that �one can derive a political right of Christian obedience from Paul, and one can oppose government establishment of religion on the basis of Pauline apocalyptic suspicion of the state. But neither of these nor their combination leads logically to a general human right to religious freedom� (p. 85). On the other hand, Paul�s theme of divine impartiality toward Jew and Gentile, based on the common origin of humanity in creation, may be able to support such a right.

Yeo completes the first round of essays by comparing Paul�s �theological ethic� with the Chinese morality of ren ren. As an added bonus, we gain a brief historical overview of Christian missionary ventures in China over the centuries, particularly as they struggled with how to respond to ancestor veneration (is it worship and hence idolatry or not?) and what Chinese names to use for �God.� In the heavily socially-centered world of Confucianism, many Christians lost a wonderful opportunity to present the community-based gospel of Paul because they knew only its Western, individualized corruptions. Failure to thoroughly understand Confucian thought has led more liberal Christians not to adequately recognize the differences between li (law) and Torah, not least because of the fundamentally optimistic nature of Chinese anthropologies. More conservative Christians, on the other hand, have probably not understood how similar the concept of ren ren (being a loving person) is to Pauline thought. But even then, Confucius� emphasis on love as that which makes us fully human and at one with Heaven, the ultimate Good, must still be supplemented with Paul�s emphasis on cruciformity.

Cosgrove�s second contribution analyzes �Paul and Peoplehood in African American Perspective.� He observes how in both the secular and Christian worlds, the trends of nationalism and integrationism coexist in an uneasy tension in African-American thought. One way to balance these two is via the theme of �difference without dominance,� as in Paul�s olive-tree metaphor for Jews and Gentiles in Christ (Rom. 11). In black Christianity, too, God-talk regularly carries with it the �corresponding human moral obligation� (p. 149) to imitate God�s actions, particularly in taking sides with the frail and weak, especially when they are unjustly marginalized or exploited. Thus the frequent focus on the exemplary and beneficial suffering that African Americans have endured does not become normative or something to be maintained. The paradoxical but profound result, under the shadow of Christ�s cross-work, so central to Paul, is that the history of their suffering for the sake of justice carries the double meaning of �violence that God opposes and the risk of love that God dignifies� (p. 178).

Yeo devotes his second chapter to relating Paul to Native American thought, noting that less biblical scholarship has addressed this culture than any of the others treated in the book. Indeed, to his knowledge no full-length works have attempted to contextualize Paul for the American Indian community at all. Relying heavily on the work of George Tinker, a very liberal Native American professor, at times of the New Testament, at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Yeo highlights the ways in which Native American religion and Pauline Christianity have often been seen to be incompatible, a conviction, paradoxically, with which Christian fundamentalists typically agree. But based on extensive personal interviews with the more progressive evangelical Indian pastor Leon Matthews, Yeo concludes that there are significant points of contact and overlap�a potentially monotheistic Great Spirit, with subordinate spirits at times compatible with Christian understanding of angels and demons, a concern for the land and our stewardship of it, harmonizable with humanity�s commission to act as godly vicegerents over his earth, parallels between sacred sites that afford sanctuary and the Old Testament levitical cities, and overlaps between the classic (more than the penal) theory of atonement. At the same time, even the most positive assessment of commonalities recognizes that Native American religious thought must be supplemented by the story of the Christ event, by an eschatology that reaches a consummation (and is not merely cyclical), by a clear distinction between the earth or the land and any form of deity, and by the distinctive power and transformation available through God�s unique Holy Spirit, all of which loom large in Paul.

Finally, Weiss invites us to follow Paul�s metaphorical trip to pre-Leninist, Orthodoxy-dominated Russia, which has made a significant comeback since the collapse of Soviet Communism. Like other forms of Eastern Orthodoxy, Russian thought has tended to stress God�s grace and and the exercise of the free human will in roughly equal doses. It stressed communal values and living, set in an elaborate hierarchical framework, long before Communism, probably explaining why there was so little revolt for so many decades against the latter. The role of the incarnation as well as the crucifixion in atonement, the possibilities of (moral, not ontological) deification, and a stress on asceticism also have characterized much of Russian religion and ideology. Paul�s struggle with the old nature (Romans 7) rings profoundly true in Russia, as does his �in Christ�-mysticism and his stress on divine foolishness vs. worldly wisdom (1 Corinthians 1).

At times our three authors seem just a bit overly optimistic concerning the commonalities between the cultures they study and the Pauline world, except with respect to American individualism. But they provide an important corrective to the still-too-frequent trend among evangelicals that neglects such common talking points too much. They may likewise at times prove too cautious about claiming that one can arrive at meanings of texts, even as significance admittedly varies widely from one reader to the next. One could take exception to smaller points here and there, too. Cosgrove is too easily persuaded that 1 Cor. 7:21 and Philemon are too ambiguous for abolitionists to build a case on for liberation from slavery, but many detailed exegetical studies of these texts suggest otherwise. Contra Yeo, Paul does not seem to have much latent cyclicalism in his eschatology, which Native Americans could appreciate. Instead, it seems rather unrelentingly linear. And the positive experiences with some lesser spirits in Indian cultures must be balanced by the recurring testimonies of those who have become Christians that the spirits had kept them enslaved and tormented, more akin to demonic than angelic influence. Weiss probably does not adequately critique traditional Russian views of Mary, stemming from her traditional role as theotokos.

But given that we had no books of this nature prior to this fall, these mild drawbacks will scarcely overshadow the outstanding value of this volume. I intend to require it as a supplementary text for my Epistles and Revelation course, an introduction and survey of the second half of the New Testament, to fit our curricular objectives of integrating as many classes as possible with multicultural and contextualizing concerns. Many thanks to our trio of authors for groundbreaking and stimulating work. At times, one must read slowly and carefully, especially where the cultural topics are quite new, but the results prove well worth the effort.

Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
January 2006