Christ, contextualization, and cherry blossoms

Eric Ortlund, who recently taught a week-long class at a Bible seminary in Nagoya, Japan, writes about teaching in a culture which has seen such a slow spread of the gospel.

I was recently privileged to be able to teach a week-long class on the book of Job at Christ Bible Seminary in Nagoya, Japan. I use the word ‘privileged’ deliberately, since Japan is a culture of great beauty and great need.

That Japan is a beautiful culture will be obvious to anyone who’s so much as looked at photos of the country. Even large urban centers like Nagoya are dotted with gardens and shrines which show a kind of loveliness not found in many other places. It is especially pleasant to visit in April during sakura season, those brief few weeks when thousands of cherry trees blossom with flowers both fiery and pale, flowers which draw the eye in a way no photograph can communicate.

In these and many other ways, visiting Japan is very pleasant (the food, the way Japanese welcome visitors, and so on). At the same time, the country can be a very dark one. Suicide is tragically common – it’s even the leading cause of death among men aged 15-39. 100-hour work weeks are frequent; karoshi, death by overwork, has become a recognized phenomenon. A growing number of young people are hikkimori, hermits who refuse to leave their rooms for months at a time.

These two elements are often juxtaposed in close proximity. The one Sunday I had in Japan was a lovely morning walking through a park in Japan full ofsakura and then worshipping with Japanese believers; but when the train home was delayed, my friend said, ‘I hope it’s not a suicide – that’s usually why the train is delayed.’ I’ve repeatedly had moments like these during my time there; one never quite gets used to the mixture of beauty and despair.

Even more tragic is the slow spread of the gospel in Japan. As the second-largest unreached people group in the world, 99.9 per cent of Japan’s 127 million will never meet another Christian or learn enough about Jesus even to have an opinion about him. This gives ministry in Japan a special urgency, making it a privilege to be able to teach future pastors, youth leaders, and student workers in Nagoya. It also creates a special problem for teaching, because although the airports, cities and stores of Japan can appear Western, it is a culture totally different from ours: authoritarian, hierarchical, and communal.

One of the first things I was told is that Japan is a culture of obligation: one does one’s duty to one’s superiors without regard for personal feeling. This complicates how one teaches (for example) Mosaic torah in the Pentateuch. In Western contexts, I find myself having to defend God’s rules against our prejudice that our personal autonomy and expression are being unfairly limited. In Japan, I pushed in the other direction, labouring against any idea that God was using torah to set up a relationship of obligation with Israel by which they could ‘pay back’ the kindness God had showed them.

I argued that instead of creating a debt Israel must work off, God’s law is actually a way of continuing and deepening his grace to them, so that God’s people can ever more deeply enjoy the salvation what he’s won for them. In the Pentateuch, even God’s rules are a kind of grace to us.

Issues of contextualization show up in many other ways. For example, the Japanese word for sin, tsumi, means more properly ‘crime’, which is a source of potential confusion for Japanese people who have never been convicted in court! Talking about how Christ expunges our dirtiness more easily gets traction, however.

A wonderful promise of the book of Revelation is that every tribe, tongue, and nation will be represented in the new creation (Revelation 7:9). If Japan is beautiful now, what will it be when it is made new? Will you join me in praying that God will give the gospel roots in the country both deep and wide, in fulfilment of his promise?

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash