Contextualization Fail: The (Theological) Story Behind My Romantic Heartbreaks

Ryan Zhang immigrated to the United States from China in 1999 and currently lives in the Boston metro area. He is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Georgetown University, and he currently serves as a pastoral intern and staff member at Christ the King Presbyterian Church.

I came to the United States at the age of 12, and I spoke almost no English at the time. As I learned to speak more and more English, my ability to connect with other American students improved, but I began to bump into other communication walls. First came the wall of slangs and idioms, then the wall of sports and political metaphors, followed by the wall of religious and cultural references. Over time and through much patience, I overcame many of these obstacles to understand my American friends and make myself understood. Yet there remained one major hurdle that continued to keep me from the hearts of American girls and caused me a great deal of frustration. That hurdle was contextualization.

My story begins with the cultural gulf between Hong Kong rom-coms and Jane Austen stories. Although I am no fan of American romantic comedies, I am a sucker for Hong Kong ones, especially those starring my favorite actor 刘德华. Most of these movies follow a similar story line: 1) guy meets girl, they develop a friendship and even a bit of chemistry; 2) either the guy loves the girl but she is not interested, or the guy inadvertently makes the girl super upset; 3) the guy stays loyal and devoted to the girl, even sacrificing his own happiness to help the girl find her happiness; 4) the girl realizes how much the guy was devoted to her and sacrificed for her, and her heart melts enabling them to get together.

As my wife observed, many Chinese romantic comedies are built around despondent-yet-loyal men, who are able to win over the girl through devotion and sacrifice. For years and years, this had been my ideal paradigm for romance, but it never won over the girls that I liked. It had never occurred to me that the whole concept of a despondent romantic lead would be foreign to American girls.

One of my friends finally pointed out to me, "Ryan, all these girls you liked love Jane Austen. They love people like Mr. Darcy." Since I wasn't familiar with these characters, I was troubled that, short of a cultural paradigm shift, I would never be able to find the love of my life.

I did eventually learn to navigate the American dating scene with more confidence and, for the lack of a better word, skills. After meeting Abigail – the girl who eventually became my wife – we watched both the Chinese rom-coms that made me the way I am, and of course, some Jane Austen. These movies became for us not only entertaining but also deeply educational. They opened up whole new categories of romance for us and helped us more deeply appreciate each other's romantic gestures, or if you are a Jane Austen fan, meaningful glances.

How does my dating experience have anything to do with the boring theological concept of contextualization? Turns out, quite a lot. Contextualization is the practice of communicating information – usually abstract ideas or cultural practices – in terms more familiar to the audience's own cultural setting. Jesus was a master at this. Instead of describing the Kingdom of God in esoteric, abstract terms, Jesus employed agricultural metaphors to teach his audience about the Kingdom of Heaven. Is the mustard seed the only way to describe faith? No, but it was the metaphor most familiar to Jesus' audience. Jesus contextualized his message to help them understand the deeper meaning.

My initial problem with American girls was that I did not contextualize my love to them in ways they could understand. The idea of romance based on devotion and sacrifice was foreign to many of them because they did not grow up watching the same Chinese rom-coms that I watched. Since these American girls had a totally different understanding of romance, my devotion likely came across as weird, or even desperate.

This became an important lesson for me not just in dating, but also in teaching the Bible. Some cultures may not have the categories through which we commonly communicate Biblical concepts. For example, the concept of sin is often translated as 罪 in Chinese, which is the same character as crime. When a Chinese pastor first told me that I needed a Savior to save me from my sins, my immediate reaction was, "I don't need a Savior because I never committed any crime." The whole category of sin did not even exist in my worldview because up to that point, the character 罪had only been used to describe crime. Eventually, someone explained to me that 罪 is more than just violations of the law, but also offenses against a Higher Being whose holiness is violated by my disobedience to his words. In addition, I learned that 罪 is like a sickness, a cancer that both grows and kills at the same time. The opening of these new categories gave me a more robust understanding of 罪, which drove me to not only seek help in behavioral change, but also seek forgiveness and healing in a divine Physician.

Applying the Bible to our lives requires more than simply understanding the literal meaning of each word, but also the cultural categories behind these words. The Christian gospel comes to us with a certain level of contextual challenge because it originated over 2000 years ago from an ancient Jewish city. Understanding the gospel requires a certain degree of familiarity with ancient Jewish culture, as well as with our own culture. To go further and communicate the gospel message to a culture outside of our own requires a third layer of cultural sensitivity. If we are unable to properly contextualize the message in cultural categories and concepts that our audience understands, our devotion to them and sacrifices for their sake may lead only to skepticism and awkward interactions. But don't be discouraged if this seemed to be too daunting for you, God is delighted to work through our imperfect methods and contextualization failures. The beauty of this practice is that while we are learning to better contextualize the Christian gospel to other cultures, we will also come to a more robust understanding of the gospel for ourselves.