Dinh Anh NHUE NGUYEN, OFM Conv., ed. The Bible and Asian Culture: Reading the Word of God in its Cultural Background and in the Vietnamese Context. Rome: Gregorian and Biblical Press, 2014. Pp. 244. Paper. Euro 25.00. ISBN 978-88-7653-681-6. Reviewed by Richard SHIELDS, University of St, Michael’s College, Toronto, ON M5S 1J4.
The religious pluralism of Asia, along with developments in Western ecclesiology present unique challenges to the missionary project of Christian churches on that continent. A promising approach to making “a renewed commitment to the mission of making Jesus Christ better known to all” (Ecclesia in Asia, 1999) involves (a) critical reflection on the dominance of Western thought categories in Christian theology; (b) the Church’s openness to the compatibility of the religious experience and cultural context of non-Western peoples. This study by three young Vietnamese biblical scholars fosters and enriches the dialogue among Western and Asian religious worldviews by exploring common ground between Christianity’s biblical texts and the oral and written teachings of Asia (specifically Vietnamese). In identifying significant entry points for a broader understanding of the event and process of Revelation within and outside the Judaeo-Christian religions, the study offers a methodology for interreligious theology. The Bible in Asian Culture was the recipient of the Carlo Maria Marini International Award (2013-2014) in the Bible and Culture category.
The book adopts a triadic approach (a) a rich exegesis of the biblical text, (b) comparative text analysis within the broader culture of the Ancient Near East, and (c) unpacking the teachings, literary forms, and images that give shape and substance to the “rich cultures of Asia.” In a study of Proverbs 23: 15-28 as an exemplar of Israel’s popular wisdom tradition, Nhue Nguyen examines the family as locus and mode of social, moral, and religious instruction. He argues that the similarity of values transmitted in otherwise divergent cultures, is a strong argument in support of “Wisdom’s universality.” Because Wisdom in the Scriptural worldview refers to both the integrity of the person and the mind of YHWH, the church is free, even obliged to recognize God’s presence not only in Israel, but in other cultures as well—despite variations in cultural consciousness of transcendence and/or deity.
In her study of the language of love in the Song of Songs and in Vietnamese literature, Thi Ly explores the closeness of images, themes, discourse, and emotions in both the Bible and Southeast Asian culture. While there are clear differences in, for example, how relationships are initiated or how lovers react to separation, the essay argues that the stronger “similarities in the themes show that lovers in both cultures share the same joys of human love and sexuality” and “form a bridge to bring the language of the Song of Songs close to the cultural milieu in Vietnam.”
Finally, Quy Trong moves the discussion into the New Testament portrayal of Jesus as “Son of God.” Beginning with the Hebrew Scripture and the rabbinic tradition this essay sets the stage for a thorough discussion of the Church’s understanding and use of this title. What emerges is a picture of the rich diversity and conscious development in how the Church understood Jesus’ identity. Just as a progressively Westernized church, drawing on new cultural language, found new categories for talking about God, Vietnamese family culture windows for deepening that understanding through reflection on the place of the son within the Vietnamese family. In a process of “traversing cultural and national boundaries”, the Church can move beyond Western thought and gain an unanticipated vantage point for re-doing theology.
The book is an opening to correct the current lack of categories needed for a vibrant Asian theology. Although rich in introducing important Vietnamese cultural images and themes, the work remains largely conceptual and leaves for further exploration the religious depths that have shaped and informed Asian culture. As the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences and their Institute for Interreligious (BIRA) dialogue have discovered in their own interreligious project, conceptual bridges must be situated within the religious reality of South East Asia. BIRA, in fact, recommends a “receptive pluralism”—reshaping the theological categories of the missionary Church, as well as recognizing the authentic history of salvation in Asia as mediated through its diverse religious traditions. Receptive pluralism goes beyond what we tend to view as “inculturation” (adapting Christian practices and discourse to reflect language and worldview of Asia), to discerning the place of the Christian Church within the religious pluralism of Asia. The aim of this study is more limited; yet it represents concrete movement toward new horizons of dialogue between Asian and Western thought categories in a multicultural, multi-religious environment.