I don’t know of any plans to translate Rob Bell’s new book on hell into Thai. But if it was translated, I doubt it would sell very well. I haven’t read his book so this is not a commentary on what Bell does or does not espouse. But this IS a commentary on how culture shapes our perception of what’s important. The burning issues facing the American church are not necessarily so important in other parts of the world.
While the American church faces the challenges of postmodernity, secularism, and doubt, the church in Thailand does not. The vast majority of Thai Christians and churches affirm the reality of heaven and hell, and the reality of God’s supernatural intervention in the affairs of life. Even Thai Buddhists, who make up 95% of the population of Thailand, believe in heaven and hell. Granted, they have a different understanding of these terms, but most would acknowledge their reality because Buddhism affirms them as well. So, a book addressed to a culture which views heaven and hell with skepticism would likely sit on the shelf in Thailand, gathering dust.
The Thai church faces other issues. The broader culture wants to know, “Is a Thai Christian still really Thai? Aren’t all Thai people Buddhist?” “Why can’t Christians participate in Buddhist rituals? Don’t they love their families?” “Isn’t Christianity a foreign religion?” “Jesus who? Never heard of him.” “You’re a pastor? What’s that? Is it like being a monk?” “Where can I get a cross? I want to wear it together with my other amulets to bring good luck.”
The issues that new Thai Christians need to work through don’t have to do with skepticism and secularism but animism and Buddhism. Challenges to the Biblical faith come from the karma mentality, a cultural value on conformity, and a society that sees itself as mono-religious, i.e. to be Thai is to be Buddhist. In Thailand I have had many more discussions about the demonic than about strange sounding laws from the book of Leviticus.
The upshot of this is that the Western church needs to be aware that just because a certain issue may be the pressing hot topic in America, it is doesn’t mean that it will be so in other contexts and cultures. Any Christian or church involved in cross-cultural missions needs to remember this. How can we do this? For Western churches who want to be a blessing to the rest of the world, I offer two brief application points:
1) Have long-term missionaries on the ground in other cultures, functioning as a liaison with the church back home. To make an impact for the Gospel in another cultural setting, it is necessary to spend time in that culture, listening and talking with people, finding out what are the issues of the day, and what is pressing upon people’s hearts. The “short-term” only mentality is merely a refurbished version of the old colonial mentality. If they want to be a blessing, short-term teams need to listen to local Christians and long-term missionaries in the places where they serve, in order to find out what they need.
2) If there is not yet a good book on a topic written by a local Christian, translate a book on that topic only if it corresponds to what is needed in that culture. So, rather than translate a book about hell addressed to a doubting, skeptical post-Christendom American audience, translate (or even better, write) a book about the Biblical notion of hell in comparison with popular Buddhist ideas about hell. The former will take much less work than the later, but the later would be a much greater blessing to local Christians in living out their faith where God has placed them in the world.
God is doing wonderful things in the global church, which is growing in leaps and bounds as the visible church in the West shrinks. However, the time has not yet passed for the Western church to be a blessing to the rest of the world. But only if she takes the time to listen before speaking.