This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2004 vol. 161 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
Change across Cultures: A Narrative Approach to Social TransformationBaker Academic, Grand Rapids March 1, 2002
Bradshaw directed transformation development research and training for World Vision International for more than twelve years and worked as a regional liaison officer in Somalia for the U.S. Agency for International Development. The author of Bridging the Gap: Evangelism, Development, and Shalom (Monrovia, CA: MARC, 1993), he is currently assistant professor of economics and business at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas.
A reader might decide whether this volume warranted reading by looking at the opening paragraph of the foreword, which reads, “The great mission outreach of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries planted churches around the world. It was less successful, however, in transforming the societies in which people lived. Poverty, injustice, corruption, violence, and oppression continue unchecked in much of the world, despite the growth of the church. How should we as Christians respond to this apparent contradiction?” The author assumes that this demonstrates a deficient approach to the church’s mission and launches the reader on a journey that seeks to justify a broader mission of cultural change for the church.
The book ignores the stifling influences of hostile governments, oppressive and competing religious systems, human preference for moral autonomy, and the work of Satan. No mention is made of wheat and tares growing together until the King returns. No acknowledgement is given to the New Testament predictions that evil times will grow worse and worse as the eschaton approaches. This reviewer wonders if the book’s expectations are realistic or biblical.
In addition the book gave no acknowledgement for whatever leavening effect the church has had during the last two centuries in various cultures. In contrast to Bradshaw’s assessment, a reader would do well to review the influence of the Sunday school on English society. Some believe England avoided the fate of the French Revolution because of the Sunday school. Or one may consider St. Patrick’s impact on Irish culture. One historian traces how Irish profane poetry and music transformed into hymns and songs glorifying God. And was not Martin Luther King a churchman? Did his “dream” not emerge from his Christian understanding of the world, which lay in stark contrast to the realities of his day? Church history is marked by personalities and movements that made major societal changes.
Basically Bradshaw wishes the reader to adopt narrative over proposition as a tool for bringing about cultural change to a Christian way of life. He sums up his work in his final sentence by saying, “The kosmos is hungering for redemption, not through propositional truth, but by means of a narrative into which we live” (p. 297).
In recent years the church has been rediscovering the power of narrative, both biblical and personal, to transform thinking. Yet this is no reason to prefer narrative over propositional truth. Both lay side by side in the biblical documents. Both must be taken seriously by any individual or culture that wishes to follow the will of God.
The author could have picked a different rationale for making his point about narrative as a vehicle for cultural change. More importantly he needs to provide a stronger argument for preferring narrative over propositional truth. He may have one, but the ones he offered did not persuade this reviewer.
The one redeeming feature of the book comes through Bradshaw’s life experiences on the field as he describes one cultural dilemma after another for missionaries and Christian workers who move across cultural boundaries. These should be excerpted and used as valuable case studies in Christian ethics for missionaries and other Christian workers.
—Michael S. Lawson