The Jesus Virus

We assume that the manner in which we do faith and theology is the gold standard for Christians around the world.  Theology in Africa is contextual, while what we do in seminaries and churches in America is ‘the truth’.  The manner in which believers in Kenya act out their faith is ‘indigenous’, while the way we do faith in America is Christianity.  While we would never admit to such a condescending attitude, our language gives us away.  Contextualization and indigenization are terms we use to refer to foreign beliefs and practices but never to our own.  Could it be that the same terms should be applied to our beliefs and practices?  Isn’t all faith contextualized and every church indigenous to its locale? 

David W. Smith points to the contextual nature of theology and faith and explains why it is difficult to transmit the same throughout the world:

For the past few centuries the churches of Europe found themselves responding to the impact of new ideas in philosophy and science, with the inevitable result that theology in the West became highly contextual.  As they endeavored to translate Christian beliefs into Enlightenment categories, Western theologians accepted the existence of a clear distinction between the realms of sacred and the secular, and they granted a privileged place to rational thought and investigation as the path to knowledge.  Theology involved the systematic articulation of belief, biblical interpretation and preaching was to be logical, and truth itself came to be understood in terms of propositions requiring mental assent.  As we have seen, it was long assumed that this form of Christianity was capable of meeting the spiritual needs of peoples everywhere, so that missions become the means by which a more or less secularized form of faith was transmitted to the rest of the world.  What is now clear is that a theology that exalted the cerebral above the instinctual, gave priority to the individual over the communal, and accepted the matters of faith and ethics were private concerns, contributed to the loss of faith in what was once known as ‘Christendom’, even as it was being rejected as inadequate to the real needs of growing churches in the new heartlands of Christianity(Against the Stream: Christianity and Mission in an Age of Globalization, 2003, p. 21).

Smith’s words evoke a number of questions, but I want to address one – Given the fact that my theology and faith are “highly contextualized” should I engage in efforts to transmit the gospel across cultures?  My answer is – Absolutely yes!  Because the gospel of Jesus Christ has changed my life and brings meaning to my existence, I share it as the best hope for the troubles, hurts, bondage, rage, greed, conflict, and hate that plagues my near and distant neighbors.  It must be shared.

However, this urgency to share does not give me license to export wholesale my brand of Christianity.  I must see the gospel not as the intellectual property of my group or culture to be downloaded across language, ethnicity, tribe, or social status.  Rather, the gospel is like a virus that possesses its host and mutates into a multitude of strains resistant to uniformity.  Thus, I cross into another culture and boldly share my hope because of a confidence in the power of the gospel to transcend my limitations and to reproduce meaning and life within that context.  Potency is not in the carrier but in the virus.

Of course, there are attitudes and actions that I can adopt to foster credible transmission.  As a transmitter of the Jesus Virus, I need to … 

  • examine my faith and concede that it is shaped by a context.
  • recognize and confess that I am only a man, and thus, give witness to eternal truth via my limited language, symbols, and culture.
  • trust the power of the Holy Spirit and the Bible in the life of a man or woman whose way of thinking, acting, and believing is completely different than my own.
  • live a transformed, hopeful life.

The Jesus Way has become pandemic; it has spread to Brazil, Beijing, Swaziland, Dublin, Hico – to the ends of the earth.  No one group of people from any particular locale controls or manages this Virus.  Credible carriers of Christ infect others, who then carry this life-changing hope across borders, into prisons, via obscure languages, in spite of racial hatred, cultural bias, and impure motives.  For you see, it truly is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

10 thoughts on “The Jesus Virus

  1. Thanks for giving me tons to chew on this weekend. I think I shall go reexamine life, faith and practice.

  2. I think another reality of Viral Discipleship is that the most potent and durable viruses are those than develop unique, local strains. All these sub-species of the virus share the essential character and effects of the ‘virus’ (which eventually only exists as something of an abstraction), but they each have adapted within their environment genetically to maximize their transmission from host-to-host and their ability to defend themselves against suppression, whether biological or pharmaceutical.

    Though viruses are an admittedly ironic place to look for inspiration, I think there is certainly something here to be learned.

  3. Scott, it is good to hear your thoughts on the viral nature of faith and its transmission. I hope you are seeing a durable and potent strain develop in your city. Peace.

  4. I liked this. I think I should probably always throw in “contextualized version” when talking my understanding of Christianity. Yeah, that’s good.

    I like the metaphor of a virus as well. We could even run with it a bit. We’re always trying to kill off viruses. Or we could say a good virus is one that kills its host. Okay… maybe I’m stretching. 🙂

  5. Interesting to read the last two posts in the light of a new president. To carry on the virus analogy–Fear drives us to vaccinate ourselves against a number of viruses throught out our lives. I wonder if fear does the same things in regard to the “Jesus Virus.” I wonder how much more infected we would become if we choose to not be afraid.

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  7. Amen! That is a great quote from David Smith and accompanied by some fabulous reflections on the ever-contextual nature of our faith. At a conference we once heard someone that works among Southeast Asia people group comment, “I’m not into all of that contextualization stuff.” My wife later responded “we contextualize no matter what. It only depends on which culture you are contextualizing to.” If you think you don’t need to contextualize, then you are likely simply passing on a contextualized gospel for your own culture.

  8. Mike,

    Great thoughts. I wonder also about not only the transmission of the virus to other cultures but also to our own. It seems that although the Jesus Virus is pure, that there have been many attempts to transmit our own form of the virus even within our Western context and have also presented these “mutations” to ours and other contexts and cultures both locally and globally. What are your thoughts on “mutations” of the Jesus Virus?
    I think some of what you are saying is that the Jesus Virus will mutate in some way depending on your context. However, not all mutations are productive (gnosticism, pluralism, relativism, etc.) How do we prevent mutations that are more harmful than productive in our own contexts as well as globally? You gave us some ideas, but are there other things to consider in our own contexts?

    2 books that speak of the power of viruses and viral multiplication are The Tipping Point (Malcolm Gladwell) and The Starfish and the Spider (Brafman and Beckstrom).

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