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

Ryan 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.


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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

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About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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