A number of years ago, I flipped the channel and came across the film Black Robe. I never saw the end, nor did I see the beginning for that matter. At a used book sale a few months ago, I came across the novel that the film was based on. The novel, written by Brian Moore, follows the French missionary Jesuit priest Father Laforgue, as he travels with an Algonkin tribe to reach the mission to the Huron tribe.
From the outset of the novel, it is clear that the language the priests use regarding baptism and conversion, the only language they know and are clearly indoctrinated into, actually becomes an obstacle when talking to the natives. Father Laforgue (as well as other priests in the book) talks about baptism as the way to life after death, always focused on the other world. He never hears the Native Americans concerns that baptism is more about death. Father Laforgue tries several times to administer baptism just prior to death, always too late, but the Natives see that death always follows the "water sorcery."
Evangelization must always be sensitive to and understand the cultural trappings into which it is brought. Whenever the priest tries to discuss the gospel, he fails to articulate it in terms that the Natives will understand. Throughout the novel, Father Laforgue struggles with the completely foreign nature of the Natives' tribes. Brutal to their enemies, incredibly open with sexual partners, distrustful of privacy keeps Laforgue off balance. But he never senses that the vertigo he experiences comes from the refusal to jettison the theological language which has good apologetic value in the Old World. In the New World, however, the gospel must be communicated with language that has apologetic value there. Laforgue jumps immediately to baptism and the renunciation of all the Natives hold sacred. Interestingly Moore walks the line in the culture clash. The Natives (who hold great stock in dreams) have dreams which all come true, most notably in Laforgue's walking into the Huron village alone. However at Laforgue's presence the fever which is ravishing the Natives begins to lift. Which perspective is right? Are the dreams showing the true worldview? Or is God's hand at work healing the Natives?
I am in no way advocating or suggesting that we throw out all of our theological categories and language. Absolutely not. But we constantly need to be interpreting the story of God's work in the world through Jesus Christ so that we can hear it for what it is, good news. If we fail to understand the surrounding culture, we risk making the gospel unintelligible and have created a stumbling block for the hearers.
The story of Laforgue is something we should pay great attention to, for evangelization is not something in the past, but an ever increasing reality. However, we must be careful not to assume that the past's language will suffice. Even Paul knew this with his "let me tell you about your unknown God." Paul used their cultural trappings as the entry point for the gospel. We can do the same, but only if we pay attention to our surroundings and the story of God in Christ Jesus.
By the way, do not read Black Robe if you are uneasy around crude language, brutal violence, and deptictions of sex. All are prevalent throughout the novel.