Cross-cultural evangelical theology in Japan
English publications dealing with global or cross-cultural or contextual theology are not uncommon these days. But writings which describe the actual content of such a contextual theology—its look and feel in any given culture—seem to be few. In this article I will first draw a distinction between metatheology and phenomenology. Then in light of a recent publication of the Japan Evangelical Association (JEA) Theological Commission I will suggest that one model of doing cross-cultural evangelical theology in Japan might be characterized as reactionary.
Metatheology versus phenomenology of cross-cultural theology
It seems that most English publications on cross-cultural evangelical theology primarily deal with the theological framework for doing theology.1 These writings explore the broader theological context within which cross-cultural theology occurs. But they do not fill in the details of particular local theologies so as to help us see how these particular theologies might align with the theological framework espoused. Drawing a distinction between theological framework on the one hand and theological phenomenon on the other might provide a helpful lens through which to understand cross-cultural theology. The two poles of this distinction could be called metatheology and phenomenology. Metatheology can be considered the higher level of contextual theology. Metatheological discussions center upon theological frameworks, methodology, and the exhortation to do self-theology in a cross-cultural context. By contrast, phenomenology deals with the actual theological arguments and reasoning put forth by various theologians in any given culture. This could be called the lower level of doing contextual theology because it places one in immediate face-to-face interaction with theologians from other cultures. At this phenomenological level the temperature of the discussion can get quite warm!
Contemporary evangelical theology observed in Japan
What follows are some observations and interpretations of some aspects of evangelical theology in Japan. The emphasis is on the phenomenological or lower level of doing cross-cultural theology in Japan.
The JEA has a purpose similar to that of the National Association of Evangelicals in the United States. The JEA is representative of evangelicalism in Japan. In May 2006 the Theological Commission of the JEA published a pamphlet titled Fundamentalism. This Japanese publication of six articles is a short study of religious fundamentalism.2 The pamphlet addresses the issue of how Christians should think about war, especially about the current war in Iraq initiated by America in response to 9/11. Christians all agree that war is a kind of evil. Differences among Christians usually center on whether war can ever be justly required. The pamphlet contributes to this discussion by arguing that war can never be justly required because war is not appropriate for followers of Jesus Christ. It is a presentation of Japanese evangelical pacifism. The pamphlet links what it understands to be American evangelical support of the Iraq War with what it describes as American fundamentalistic theology. Thus the title of the pamphlet, Fundamentalism. The contributors to the pamphlet respond to this perceived American fundamentalistic theology, which they understand to be characteristic of American evangelicalism.
This is an important discussion for Japanese evangelicals. The pamphlet plays a significant role in forming Japanese evangelical thinking. The fact that the pamphlet has gone through two printings shows its popularity among Japanese evangelicals.
The pamphlet can be seen in both a positive and a negative light. The positive aspect is the pamphlet’s contribution to understanding the nature of religious fundamentalism. A few of the articles are outstanding in this regard. All the contributors have written boldly about sensitive and important issues related to war and the role of the church in peacemaking. However, the negative aspect is the pamphlet’s attempt in places to sketch a Japanese interpretation of American evangelical history and theology which contrasts with the way most American evangelicals would understand themselves. This approach results in some misrepresentation of American evangelicals.
Evidence pointing toward a reactionary model of evangelical cross-cultural theology in Japan
Stephen Bevans has identified various models for doing cross-cultural theology. He notes at least five models: translation, anthropological, praxis, synthetic, and transcendental.3 One model not covered by Bevans might be a model called “reactionary theology.” It could be that this model has become more prominent since 9/11, especially in the pacifist-oriented evangelical world of Japan.
The Iraq War has generated polarizing responses among evangelicals even in America. Some American evangelicals are more nation-centric than others. Some American evangelicals are conservative in their theology while others are not. The American evangelical church is characterized by diversity and complexity. So when statements are made about sensitive issues within the diverse and complex American evangelical church it is inevitable that some people will be offended.
In the context of global theology, fair criticism of the American evangelical church offered by evangelicals who are not themselves American is welcome. This is because theology is best developed in dialogue with international partners. American evangelicals need to hear from Japanese evangelicals. But there is evidence that the JEA Theological Pamphlet No. 6 loses its theological balance at some places by its negative reaction to what is perceived as American fundamentalistic evangelicalism. Reactionary evidence in the pamphlet includes the following six points. Quotations in the footnotes are taken from the pamphlet.
Potentially divisive strong statements
The pamphlet makes some strong statements regarding views held by many American evangelicals.4 These kinds of strong statements have the potential to cause friction between evangelicals separated by the Pacific Ocean.
Rhetoric sourced in a negative attitude toward America
The pamphlet’s concern to distance Japanese evangelicals from their American counterparts creates a theological context of negative critique. The potentially positive, constructive, and perhaps unique contribution a Japanese evangelical theology of peacemaking could make to the global evangelical movement is thus overshadowed in the pamphlet by its undertone of anti-American rhetoric.5 The result seems to be a reactionary theology of peacemaking. Is it possible to publish a Japanese-flavored evangelical theology of peace without building its case upon the many perceived theological mistakes of American evangelicalism?
Confusion about what American fundamentalism is and who American fundamentalists are
American evangelicalism is historically and theologically complex. Confusion is perpetrated in the pamphlet through its lack of clear definitions and consistent use of the term “fundamentalism.” For example, some articles in the pamphlet exhibit an overlap in the use of the terms “Christian fundamentalism” and “evangelicalism.” Christian fundamentalism is also described as conservative Christianity.6 Although among American evangelicals there is a vocal left wing, evangelicals in the United States have historically agreed on such Biblical fundamentals as one God who is Creator and Lord of the universe, the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection, the literal return of Jesus Christ, and the authority and inerrancy of the Bible. However, evangelicals in America usually reserve the term fundamentalist for those who hold to the necessity of other doctrines, such as a literal six-day view of creation and dispensational premillennialism. But doctrinal positions in themselves do not identify a person as a Christian fundamentalist. Therefore, along with these doctrinal positions, fundamentalists have tended to socially isolate themselves from those with whom they have a disagreement on doctrinal and moral issues, including separating themselves from other evangelicals. In the American context, “Christian fundamentalists” often associate themselves with the Independent Fundamentalist Churches of America (IFCA) whereas evangelicals choose to identify with the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Some of the writers of the Fundamentalism pamphlet overlook this distinction by equating evangelicalism or conservative Christianity and Christian fundamentalism in America. That is, the pamphlet tends to group together American evangelicals and American Christian fundamentalists even though that is not the self-understanding of the Americans being described. The result is that the pamphlet redefines American evangelicals in a way that is alien to them.
Misrepresentation or caricature
Several writers in the pamphlet describe American evangelicals as having a pro-war attitude which leads the American nation to war and that this attitude derives from their theology.7 However, the aspects of conservative American evangelical theology which the pamphlet criticizes do not necessarily result in American evangelicals applauding war. The rhetoric which this kind of misrepresentation generates might convince Japanese evangelicals that there is a distinction between Japanese and American evangelicals. That is, American evangelicals love war but Japanese evangelicals love peace. However, the rhetoric misrepresents American evangelicals who know such a distinction is unfounded.
Watanabe seems to understand that historical events play an important role in the formation of public opinion, including the opinions of evangelicals. However some other contributors assert a causal relationship between certain theological positions held by many American evangelicals and support for American militarism.8 The cause of American evangelical support of the Iraq War is thus reduced to theology. The suspect theological positions include premillennialism, dispensational eschatology, and the young earth theory which is said to be dependent upon a literal interpretation of the Bible. Doubtless, many American evangelicals and Christian fundamentalists who hold these theological views do indeed also support the American war effort in Iraq. However, there are many other American evangelicals, and perhaps even American Christian fundamentalists, who hold these same theological convictions but are opposed to the Iraq War. Among American evangelicals, theology does not conclusively determine one’s political stance, including one’s position on any given war. To suggest that all political decisions of American evangelicals are the direct result of their theology is reductionistic.
The pamphlet gives evidence of the very exclusionism it criticizes
Fujimoto shows how an “us versus them” mentality results in the confrontational posture often associated with fundamentalism. At least one of the articles in the pamphlet creates just such a posture of exclusion in order to distance Japanese evangelicals from their American counterparts.9 There is irony in identifying an exclusionary mentality in what is understood to be American Christian fundamentalism but not recognizing one’s own tendency toward exclusionism.
So the JEA Theological Pamphlet No. 6 gives evidence of a reactionary model of doing cross-cultural evangelical theology. As missionaries in Japan, we need to be aware that this model seems to have become somewhat acceptable here. The JEMA ad hoc Theological Commission has met several times over the past eighteen months in order to discuss the pamphlet. Issues of both content and methodology have been on the table. The desire has been to develop a sound response to the JEA Theological Pamphlet No. 6. It is hoped that understanding this pamphlet as an example of reactionary cross-cultural theology might be helpful for JEMA’s ongoing interaction about the pamphlet with the JEA Theological Commission.
1 Paul Hiebert, “Metatheology: The Step Beyond Contextualization,” in Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 93-103. Paul Hiebert, “The Missionary as Mediator of Global Theologizing,” in Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity, ed. Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 288-308. Tete Tienou, “Christian Theology in an Era of World Christianity,” in Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity, ed. Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 37-51.
2 Fundamentalism: Japan Evangelical Association Theological Commission Pamphlet No. 6 (May 2006). The English translation can be viewed and downloaded at http://www.jtheo.net. Contributors are K. Ishihara, Y. Sekino, M. Fujimoto, M. Kurasawa, H. Okayama, and A. Watanabe. Much of the description and evaluation of the pamphlet in this article reflects the discussion of the JEMA ad hoc Theological Commission over the past eighteen months.
3 Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1992).
4 Sekino: “There is an ideology in the claims of the Religious Right in America that labels its opponents as devils and foments anger and enmity…. At the center of Christian fundamentalism is the emotion of ‘anger’…” (V.A.)
Sekino: “Hidden at the roots of both apocalyptic, sensationalist eschatology and creation science are problems with biblical interpretation. It is easy to fall into extreme claims with a literal biblical hermeneutic, lacking in covenantal and atoning consideration and which ignores the purpose for which the Bible was written or the linguistic and cultural restrictions that were upon the writers at the time. American Christian Fundamentalism, especially in the South where it has widely infiltrated its background with simple-minded (thinking), avoids intricate methods of biblical interpretation and has an abusive trend particular to evangelicalism that simplifies the reading of scripture.” (V.E.)
Okayama, in criticizing pretribulational premillennialism: “The first problem with this eschatology is that it is exceedingly this worldly, politicized, and secularized.” (II.C.1.)
Okayama, continuing to critique pretribulational premillennialism: “The emphasis on an eschatological war is also a problem. Christian fundamentalists have a great interest in Armageddon, the final world war, which according to some is identified with a nuclear war. And because the final world war will occur before the return of Christ there is a tendency to perceive war on earth positively as an eschatological sign.” (II.C.3.)
5 Okayama: “The problematic points of contemporary American Christian fundamentalism are nationalism, a simplistic dualism between good and evil, and a secularized eschatology” (Summary)
Okayama: “Why is it that American Christian fundamentalists even now continue to offer strong support for the Iraq War? Along with strong doubts about the Iraq War many Japanese Christian churches are also developing a feeling of loathing toward it so that the issue is becoming a stumbling block to evangelism in Japan.” (Introduction)
Okayama, referring to America: “If a country is possessed by the wild idea of conquering the world through its military might, and if that country leads the world toward destruction, we Japanese have the responsibility to point out its foolishness.” (III.B.)
6 After describing American fundamentalists as a “sect” and as “militant”, the same descriptions which are often used in the secular media, Sekino cautions against using “evangelicalism” in the way the media does (II.B.). That is, Sekino does not follow his own cautionary advice.
Sekino labels both Tony Evans, a frequent speaker at Promise Keepers, and Gary North of the Christian Reconstruction Movement as fundamentalists (II.C.). Actually, both would probably prefer to be called evangelicals. As a point of clarification, Tony Evans is not the founder of Promise Keepers. That distinction probably belongs to Bill McCartney.
After describing the silence of the NAE regarding the Iraq War, Okayama asks, “Why is it that American Christian fundamentalists even now continue to offer strong support for the Iraq War?” (Introduction) In his mind, American evangelicals seem to be the same group as American fundamentalists.
Okayama classifies Jerry Jenkins, with his Left Behind series, as an American fundamentalist (II.C.).
7 Sekino: “Christian Fundamentalism was the undercurrent for the self-righteous, warlike posture that became remarkably apparent in the United States after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, (hereafter, “9/11”).” (Introduction)
Okayama: “The seventeenth century Puritans held to a strong sense of being an elected people who were the new Israel. Because of their immigration to North America, the genocide of the indigenous ‘Indians’ occurred. The design of White Christians to destroy the pagans of colored races amounts to the indiscriminate killing of three million people: the twelfth century Crusades; the seventeenth century massive killing of the former inhabitants of Central, South, and North America; the twentieth century Philippine atrocity, the bombing of Tokyo, the killing of many Japanese civilians with atomic bombs, and the Vietnam war. The twenty-first century bombing of Afghanistan and Iraq is consistent with this.” (I.B.2.)
Okayama: “Why do present day American Christian fundamentalists unconditionally affirm their own country’s wars?” (II.A.1.)
Okayama: “The idea that God’s kingdom expands through the destruction of evil by the military might of the good is consistent in Western Christian society. In comprehensive terms, this is American Christian fundamentalism.” (II.B.)
Ishihara: The American fundamentalism that is currently at issue is thought to result from a hermeneutic that superimposes on each other ethnic Israel’s Exodus from Egypt and America’s nation-building. That is to say, Israel’s election and mission are taken to be America’s election and mission, and can be seen as guiding the nation toward “wars of aggression”… (Abstract)
8 Okayama: “Christian fundamentalists have a great interest in Armageddon, the final world war, which according to some is identified with a nuclear war. And because the final world war will occur before the return of Christ there is a tendency to perceive war on earth positively as an eschatological sign.” (II.C.3.)
9 Okayama implies that Japanese churches should not cooperate with any overseas churches other than pacifist churches: “The Japanese church should continue to cooperate with historically pacifist churches…” (Summary, and III.A.)
Note Fujimoto’s warning about this possible exclusive mentality in the JEA: “…as an evangelical association positioned within a larger church, we ought to ask ourselves if we have fallen into exclusivism, or, in maintaining our own distinctives, whether we are judging others.”