Inculturation viewed from the other side

I realize that it’s beginning to look like I’m obsessed by the issue of inculturation (well, if one is going to be obsessed by an issue, it’s not a bad one), but this article concerning Hindu’s protesting an “indigenous” representation of the Virgin and child (hat tip to Deacon Greg) raises the fascinating issue of the ways in which inculturation and inter-religious dialogue and understanding might sometimes come into conflict.

How do Christian efforts to present the Gospel in a different cultural context look to the members of that culture? In the attempt to present Christianity in the cultural clothing of a non-western culture, do we run the risk of being perceived of co-opting another religion’s symbolic universe for our own purposes? Particularly in a culture like India’s, where for most Hindu’s there is no real difference between “religion” and “culture,” can we simply borrow aspects of the culture willy nilly without showing disrespect for the integrity of Indian culture and religion?

Worries about inculturation are often couched in terms of compromising the integrity of the Gospel. This case raises a correlative issue about compromising the integrity of other religions.


  1. Some of the local Christians are suggesting the issue is only an issue because of political agitators. This should not be dismissed.

    Moreover- It seems to me the issue is whether the representation comes from the indigenous culture or comes at it.

    If Christians who look and dress a particular way envision a Jesus or a Mary that looks and dresses like them, that is authentic- and the fact that it disturbs or offends other people (non-Christians who also look and dress that way, or Christians who don’t) is of no concern.

    If European missionaries are engaging in cultural appropriation, that’s different, and should be carefully considered. The effects could range from offense to silliness, and it’s hard to know ahead of time what those effects will be.

  2. I don’t know how much traction I’d afford this particular concern, RMDrFB, in light of the much more grievous and heinous other affects of inculturation, evangelization and promotion of gospel values in India. I refer to the little link that takes one to another article in the same periodical dealing with yet another brutal, savage murder of Sister Valasha John, whom local coal miner union thugs set upon with axes for promoting human rights in their village.
    Iconography in many parts of south Asia gets short shrift when, in reaction to the murder I mention, the local authorities chillingly respond thusly:

    The recent murder of this activist is of course concerning, We expect that lawful action will be taken by the relevant public authority, said J.K. Srivastav, public relations officer at the National Human Rights Commission. If they do not, then we may have to issue a notice voicing our concerns, he added.

  3. I’m very glad Deacon Fritz has written on Deacon Greg’s article. Just a few weeks ago I had a chat with an anthropologist colleague of mine, whose specialty is contemporary Hindu ritual. Our conversation stated when she showed me her smartphone. She had downloaded various devotional apps for different religions. She had a virtual puja alongside a virtual rosary, among other diverse religious devotional apps. This smorgasbord of religious expression reminds me that in many respects the commodification of religious expression through the now ubiquitous smartphone contrasts with ritual inculturation as a specific and unique phenomenon for a culture or region.

    Opposition to an inculturated representation of “Mother Mary” takes place within the orbits of global media and Indian postcolonialism. In the second case, criticism of inculturated Christian iconography as “not Indian” clashes with the still significant presence of European-influenced social structures in India (foremost English as a national lingua franca). Are the opponents of “Mother Mary” disingenuous? Not in my view. Catholics throughout the world worship in liturgies crafted from layers of Hellenistic, Roman, and European expressions, despite efforts to inculturate the Roman tradition in diverse cultures. Similarly, Indians who follow the Hindu way of life necessarily experience image and ritual through postcolonialism, despite the desire to discover ritual authenticity. Criticism and strife between religious groups often share the same theoretical bases, even if ostensibly the contentions are starkly different.

  4. Intrigued by the voices who have already commented. Wish there were more readers of PrayTell in Asia. But let me offer a cross-section of what I am aware of from my years working in Asia and with Asians.
    In India, where my community has been working since before WWII, there are many example of inculturation I could refer to. In the arts overall the work is done by Indian SVD’s or SSpS sisters (we share the same founder, St Arnold Janssen). Since WWII there are group(s) of SVD’s and lay people – not all Christians – who evangelize through dance. Their work is welcomed across the religious divide.
    In Indonesia there is a tradition, particularly strong in Bali, of wood carving that reflects the local culture. When Benedict XVI visited our General Chapter last year he was presented with a statue of the BVM from Bali. Liturgies across Indonesia consistently reflect the local culture.
    Here in Japan there is a Japanese Carmelite sister whose artwork consistently reflects Japanese themes – her Virgin and Child are always dressed in tradtitional costume. Another sister, from a different religious community produces statues that are made from red clay, and while the clothing is Japanese they are left unpainted drawing on the very old Haniwa pottery tradition.
    Overall levels of acceptance will vary. Some raise questions, but I’d say that whenever there are objections from outsiders they come mostly from radical groups – religious fundamentalists and nationalists. With time acceptance tends to grow.

  5. Is this any different from Protestant sects coming into Russia and building meeting places having onion domes with 3 barred Crosses on top? Looking very much on the outside like Orthodox churches, obviously the insides are a totally different story.

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