First, I’d like to thank Cody for the thoughtful response, and I’d like to respond to you by way of three points.
First, I’m fairly sure that what Leithart meant is not necessarily opposed to at least some of what you mean by “contextualization.” Just skimming a couple other articles on your blog, you emphasize the incarnation is the archetype of “contextualization,” and who could argue with that? Paul says, “let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus….” Obviously, we are called to emulate and imitate the humility and sacrifice of Christ. God’s mission is our mission, and the way of His mission in His Son is the way of our mission as His body. It’s the same Spirit at work in the incarnation as is poured out at Pentecost on the Church for Mission. So in principle, the Church must imitate Her Lord and “incarnate” the life of the Father, Son, and Spirit for the world. And obviously there is nothing “damned” about that. In fact that would be the very opposite. In principle, this is the very basis of our faith, our mission, etc. In so far as you and others mean contextualization like that, I certainly have no quarrel, and knowing Leithart I’m sure he isn’t arguing against that. But it’s equally important to point out that while the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” that same Word came in the power of the Spirit in order to upend the cultural norms and traditions of the people He came to. He came with an agenda; He came to bind the strong man and plunder his house. He came on mission, invading an Israel that had become an Egypt. He came to deliver them in order to make them human in a new and different way, down to the way they thought about food and clothing and community (e.g. Mt. 5-7). He came to teach them a new way of speaking, eating, drinking, praying, dressing, sharing, etc. And if this was the case with the Jews, how much more so, the rest of the nations of the earth?
Second, I’m not sure if I follow your take on the Babel/Pentecost connection completely, but what I do understand, I actually think is right on and actually could be understood as consistent with Leithart’s point, not necessarily contradictory. I think you’re absolutely right to see the sin of the original Babylonians as refusing to scatter and fill the earth. The judgment of mixed languages then is both a judgement in the negative sense (ending the building project) and a mercy (as you note) in that it pushes the people to actually obey God and scatter to the ends of the earth. But this doesn’t mean there can be no connection with Pentecost or that Pentecost cannot be seen in any way as a “reversal” of Babel. In fact, it is striking that where the original Babylonians sought a name for themselves and were scattered to the ends of the earth, in the very next chapter (Gen. 12), Abram is called, and the Lord promises to make a name for him and to bless all the nations of the earth through him. In other words, while the plan was always to fill the earth, and those first Babylonians were driven out to fulfill that purpose in some sense, it was actually through Abram that God would build His “city and tower reaching up to heaven.” In Abram was the beginning of the city of God. In Him, God would establish a name above every name and reunite the nations of the earth in that blessing. Thus, Pentecost doesn’t obliterate cultural, linguistic differences, but Pentecost does begin the reunification and transformation of the nations of the earth. The Holy Spirit bridges the gaps and the divisions between the scattered and warring nations so that God’s people can build the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of Heaven “on earth as it is in heaven.” And this all takes place preeminently through the seed of Abram, Jesus, who was given the name above every name for the blessing of the nations. All that to say, Babel was reversed and undone at Pentecost in so far as the Spirit is the means by which the true city of God may be built, where the Greatest Name can be exalted and magnified by the nations scattered and united through the Spirit.
Third, and I suspect this may be where the real rub is, Leithart’s main point has to do with the posture of the Church in general. How do we view this task, our mission and the role of the Church in society? While “language group” is not technically true, it is an overstatement meant to insist on an important truth. Paul says that our citizenship is in heaven; we are ambassadors of the heavenly kingdom. And everyone smiles and nods and spiritualizes everything meaningful away. But if the ambassador of Mexico showed up in Chicago and said that the President of Mexico was now claiming authority over Chicago, I daresay there’d be a bit of commotion. If anyone took him seriously, the ambassador would be quickly carted away and either incarcerated or committed. And if many people began meeting to discuss how Chicago (and the rest of the US) might be brought to accept the true authority and rule of the President of Mexico, those followers would soon find themselves under similar threat. The point that Leithart is making and that I would gladly defend is that the Church comes as an invading civilization, an invading, heavenly culture, an empire of grace with moral norms and customs and language established by our King which fallen men and women from every tribe and language must learn and submit to.
Of course, as it turns out, God created the world, and all people are made in His image. This means that scattered throughout every culture are remnants of that image, and the Church can expect to find treasures in every human society, treasures to be brought into the New Jerusalem (e.g. Rev. 21:24). Those treasures may be architectural beauty, linguistic artistry, technological advances, medical discovery, liturgical glory, or biblical and theological clarity, etc. But apart from the gospel, most of those treasures are useless at best and no better than millstones around necks at worst. And in so far as incarnational mission/contextualization means living within accepted cultural norms that do not conflict with biblical standards (clothing, language, food, etc.) and valuing those God-given, imago Dei “treasures”, I say great. Jesus spoke Aramaic and dressed like a rabbi from first century Israel and probably made some pretty fine furniture in his day. But too frequently this principle becomes the catch-all exception that sanctions all manner of compromise with the world. Sometimes this comes from the hip-and-trendy types who are looking for biblical excuses to be cool (I know, because I was one of them). And sometimes this comes through well-meaning ignorance from people who (ironically) don’t believe in the power of incarnation (e.g. what does that hair style mean? what do those clothes signify? what does a rock band in church communicate?)
I understand that your main concern may be to preserve the term “contexualization” from corruptors and misusers and misnomers. And I also grant that the work of evangelism and missions is no easy task. It’s messy, it’s challenging, and involves many judgment calls, much Bible study and prayer and fasting, and the superintending blessing of the Spirit. But your shock and dismay (is that too strong?) at the Grace to You posts on contextualization seems telling to me. While I certainly don’t agree with all they critique, I don’t think they are shadow boxing in the least. Those are no straw man critiques. If you can’t spot the evangelical church selling out to the world all around you, I don’t know what to tell you. The gospel isn’t a gnostic spark that individuals can experience with the right chords during a praise song, the right conversion appeal, or the right teary-eyed prayer. Salvation is a family, a city, an empire of grace which the Spirit is in the process of translating and incarnating into every nation and tongue, but this is an invasion. We have an agenda to disciple the nations and that means teaching them to obey all that our Master commanded. And this means turning their cultural, political, economic, and linguistic norms and practices upside down (e.g. Acts 17:6). And in so far as “contextualization” has been an excuse to do anything less than that, then yes, contextualization be damned (really).