Lately I have been gaining more and more interest in the work of author Carolyn Custis James. She talks a lot about the importance of contextualization when it comes to engaging with the Bible and Christian theology. One of her biggest passions is learning how to read scripture in the context of a Patriarchal society, although much of what she has to say about contextualization can easily translate to any societal norm, especially when it comes to dealing with familial structures (to which the Patriarchy belongs).
She argues that the best way to navigate this conversation is to see the Patriarchal society as the backdrop to the world into which scripture first spoke, not the message of scripture itself. When we see it from this lens it becomes possible to recognize how the stories of the Bible are reshaping and even confronting the notions of Patriarchy. She goes on to say that for many who live(d) in a Patriarchal society, the Biblical narrative (sacred scripture) was revolutionary. It exposes it as a system of oppression, a process of exclusion, and illuminates the work of God in the world as the process of reconciliation rather than opposition. For those of us who don’t live in a Patriarchal Society, or at least not in such obvious ways, this context is not as easily understood. The Patriarchy was a way of structuring the family in the ancient world, and what makes this even more important is that for ancient culture, these family structures also tended to shape and impact their approach to politics as well. And so in the ancient world, the family represents two competing forces- oppression (exclusion) and freedom (belonging), which is why contextualization becomes so important for us today, especially when it comes to comes to recognizing how the idea of family also plays a central role in God’s work of reconciliation.
Coco and The Contextualization of Family
As a Pixar original animated film, the creators of Coco were interested in giving voice to an underrepresented (and also currently oppressed) culture by highlighting the multi-generational household that defines the family context in Mexican culture. It then contextualizing this for a modern and international audience (which comes most clearly in Pixar’s efforts to intentionally translate the film seamlessly for English speaking audiences). From what I have heard, the film does well in celebrating the strength of a culture that values strong generational ties, incorporating some the quirks and subtleties that give this culture so much colour. It also becomes a metaphor for the oppression the culture faces in our modern age, using that line between the living and the land of the dead to imagine a very real U.S./Mexican border. Here it brings these same competing forces- exclusion and belonging, to light in a powerful way.
However, the film also does some interesting things in exploring the ways in which this family structure gives attention to what is ultimately a very human struggle- the struggle to forgive, the reality of rejection, identity issues and the struggle to belong in a system that often excludes based on elevating the worth of blood ties and family name. It reminds us that while we can see the oppression on a socio-political level, what is not always as easy to see are these same things happening on a deeply personal level in the context of our own families and relationships on our own soil and in our own homes.
By the end of the film we see these two competing forces come together through a resonating message that, however messy family can get it is also the context in which we are able to learn forgiveness, grace, and the merits of unconditional love, all of the things necessary for belonging. For Coco (and the Mexican tradition it brings to light), the call to “remember” ones family is not necessarily about narrowing our perception of the places to which we belong, but it is about the opportunity to envision these acts of forgiveness, grace and love into our personal context. But in a world as vast and as colourful and as intricate as the one Coco illustrates for us on screen, it also operates as a stark reminder of just how quickly theses things can become lost when our vision of family becomes too narrow, when the family structure and name becomes our idol, the means by which “we” belong (somewhere) rather than the model for how we relate to and include the “world”.
Adoption: A Metaphor For the World
As parents of an adopted son (internationally) and as parents who could not have biological children, so much of our ability to function as a family lives and dies on our ability to claim ourselves as a legal family in the eyes of the law. And so much of our ability to function as a family depends on seeing family as a cross-cultural journey. All 3 of us need to be able to hear and understand that family is not bound by a Patriarchal structure, or in our own modern context, by blood or by legal construct or shared culture, otherwise we would could not truly belong, we would not be fully included or accepted in society according to equal measure.
So the more I read and hear from James, the more I become convinced there is a very good reason why adoption becomes the singular, most dominant metaphor in response to the Patriarchal society that we find in the backdrop of scripture, because no matter which context the family takes, whether it is the nuclear family of American society or the multi-generational households of Mexican society, it still doesn’t reach broad enough, it can never be big enough to encompass God’s vision for His people and his world. Adoption, then, in it’s Christian context, is the only idea, the only familial narrative that truly reaches across our dividing lines, that touches us all and enables us to belong across borders, across multi-generational lines, and above any and all contextualization.
Reaching Towards Adoption
The truth of the Patriarchy, or any other familial system that binds us in terms of blood and status, is that these are things that can be stripped away and stolen. They are, by nature, exclusive, which means no matter what form they take they will always carry the potential for oppression. And it is this realization that pushed Carolyn James to look for something that could not be stolen, a truth about our identity that moves beyond contextualization and towards a universal truth about the work of reconciliation she saw saw breathing between the lines of the sacred scripture. And her search returned her to the pages of Genesis 1 and 2 in order to ask the question, what does the Bible have to say about us “in the beginning” that is true in birth and remains true in death. She arrived at 3 central truths (as she explains to Pete Enns in a recent interview with The Bible For Normal People podcast), of which the most important for me was number one:
We are image bearers meant to know the God we are imagining.
Out of this truth flows the mission of God’s people as image bearers, which is to break down the things that separate us from knowing God and of being a part of God’s family. And she creates a powerful picture of a nation which exists in the story of scripture to as an adopted people called to extend this message of adoption to the world, a world held hostage by their family structures, a world full of people in desperate need of freedom and a place to belong. For the early Jewish nation, and later the disciples of Christ followed by the apostles and the growing Church, this message of adoption was a reminder that the family of God knew no bounds. The family of God was not defined by the blood of relatives, but by the blood of God Himself. A blood stained image that uses the idea of sacrifice to flip the worlds power structures on its head. A self giving service that attempts to redefine the ways in which we belong and challenge the ways in which we don’t.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the Bible is interested in doing away with the idea of family or family structures, only that it wishes to set the idea of family into the bigger picture of God’s grace, work and story, the same story to which we are called to belong. This becomes in this narrative the contextualization of God Himself into our world and our circumstance, a contextualization that comes in a way that is fully realized in the incarnation, in the Gospel witness.
Reaching towards the Christmas Narrative
In the Christmas story the message of adoption that has been given to the Israelite Nation comes full circle. It has now been given to the world. As God’s image bearers created to know God’s image, each of us has been given the full imagining of God Himself, God in the flesh. And in this revelation we see ourselves for who God made us to be, sons and daughters of God, a title that cannot be stripped away or stolen by opposing forces. This is a familial structure that has been established through the birth, through the ministry of Jesus, and through the Cross, the final demonstration of what it looks like to belong to God’s blood-line. Here God demonstrates the nature of a Father and His first born son in a world which desperately needed to reshape its perspective of a Patriarchal order. In the Gospel story the Father (God) becomes bare and the first born becomes a servant, and in its place we are able to see stories of the oppressed and the marginalized, the women and the sick, the sinners and the broken, being raised up and being made visible through the act of adoption in an ancient world that had made them invisible, giving them the full rights of the firstborn son and the Father in the family of God.
In Christ each of us has been welcomed into the family of God because we share in the blood of Christ. And it is because of this that each of us has been called from our own context to continually broaden our perspective of family to include all nations, all peoples in this adoption truth regardless of context, regardless of culture. To go back to the story of Coco, for as much as it tells a wonderful story and is a celebration of a wonderful culture, I can’t help but feel like this same Gospel, this same message of adoption, would be as welcome in the context of that story as it was for the ancient Israelites and as it certainly is in my own. For all the potential for family to be oppressive for young Miguel, the truth of the Gospel is that family is also the place we can be redeemed when we set it in God’s story rather than our own.