Paul famously summarized his missionary strategy in 1 Corinthians 9:22 when he wrote: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” The strategy may have been definitive of Paul, but it certainly wasn’t original to Paul. After all, it was God the Son himself who provided the paradigm case when he became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).
With this kind of precedent it should be little surprise that Christians have long been concerned with contextualizing Jesus to others. If you want to understand who Jesus is, you can think of him in terms of _________. The blank has been filled in countless ways. And yet there are limitations to this strategy of accommodation. Some of them should be rather obvious. For example, we should consider any attempt to woo the head of the Juárez drug cartel in Mexico by describing Jesus in terms of a drug lord to be a non-starter.
Other boundaries of accommodation are more controversial and this brings us into the grey territory. For example, is it appropriate to contextualize Jesus to the female experience by speaking of him in the terms of the female gender? (See my discussion of this hot potato topic here.) And then there’s the classic case of missiological discussion wherein Jesus is described as being the pig of God. Joseph Fitzpatrick writes:
Among the Papuans the pig is a sacred animal. The women may nurse the pigs at their breast if there is no sow around to nurse them. In our scripture the sacred animal is the lamb: “Behold the lamb of God.” This means absolutely nothing to the Papuans. In order to communicate to the Papuans what “Lamb of God” means among the Hebrews, Dupeyrat would have to say “Christ is the pig of God.” Jesus a pig! In New York? Imagine my going into the pulpit in New York and saying “Glory to God and praise, and to the Lord Jesus who is the pig of God.” Yet if I want to communicate to the Papuans the meaning that is communicated to us and to the Hebrews and to the religious tradition of the West, I have to learn what their meanings are. (Cited in Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., Preaching: The Art and the Craft, (Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1987), 12).
Fitzpatrick assumes that Jesus should be the pig of God to the Papuans. And maybe he’s right. But others demur. After all, lambs don’t mean much to the average North American, and yet we’ve learned to think of the lamb as a sacred image. This might suggest that the image is trans-biblical and thus not one ripe for accommodation to the pig-loving culture. And yet others like Fitzpatrick will counter that it really is just a matter of cultural formation. If a pig speaks to a particular group then when you describe Jesus to those people appeal to the image of a swine.
I don’t know anybody who views the pig as sacred, but I do know many people who are enamored of the superhero. Spiderman posters hang on their wall, Batman is printed on their PJs, and Superman comics are piled on their shelf. They may be eight years old or they could be a thirty year old veteran of the Comic-con conventions, but whatever the age they love the superhero.
And for them there is an accommodation: Jesus as the superhero. Move over Spidey, step aside Batman, and get out of the way Man of Steel. The Second Person of the Trinity is here, a real superhero intent on saving not just New York, Gotham or Metropolis, but the entire world. My daughter first learned the Hillsong staple “Jesus you’re my superhero” several years ago when we visited the Sunday school of a large church. And I’m still getting over the shock. Was I right to be appalled by the contextualization of God the Son as a caped crusader, or is this really an effective way to accommodate Jesus to the devotee of Batman?