What the (Amazonian) Church can learn from the Nasi Lemak Burger

The Nasi Lemak Burger, when it was first introduced to Singapore, was a runaway hit. Based on a popular Malay rice dish, it contained a coconut-flavored chicken thigh patty, a fried egg, caramelized onions and cucumber slices topped with sambal sauce. The Nasi Lemak Burger sold out within two weeks in 2017, during the National Day celebration.

Marketing itself as being “something familiar and something new”, it seems to have struck a chord with Singaporeans, who gave the thumbs-up to McDonald’s sensitive rendition of a familiar local favorite.

I can’t believe i am saying this, but I think the Nasi Lemak Burger may help in shedding light on thinking about inculturation in the Catholic Church, especially after the uproar surrounding Pachamama.

At its most basic, inculturation is the process by which the Gospel, in its interaction with non-Christian cultures, begins to adopt the idioms and style of the non-Christian culture in order to be better understood. Pope John Paul II compares the process as analogous to the Incarnation:

“Cultures, analogically comparable to the humanity of Christ in whatever good they possess, may play a positive role of mediation in the expression and extension of the Christian faith.”
~ Faith and Inculturation no. 5

One dynamic in the quest for a successful inculturation is to determine what is the “core” (substance) and what is the “packaging” (accident) in a particular message. As Pope John XXIII reminded Catholics in his opening speech at the Second Vatican Council,

“The Deposit of Faith is one thing, and the way it is presented is another.”

In other words, if in a quest for relevance, one were to abandon the deposit of faith, it will constitute a failed attempt at inculturation. Some things are simply non-negotiable.

Indeed, when reflecting on the success of McDonald’s, one thing stood out for me. Namely, that while it is termed a “Nasi Lemak Burger”, there was absolutely no rice involved in the preparation.

McDonald’s seem to have determined that its core business of producing burgers is an intrinsic part of its identity. If McDonald’s had sold actual nasi lemak instead, in an attempt to “go local”, I suspect that it would not have achieved the runaway success that it did. Indeed, it may have been accused of “cultural appropriation”.

The debate over inculturation in the Amazonian region should thus not be framed as a battle between “traditionalists” who oppose inculturation and by extension local cultures, and “progressives” who want inculturation so as to respect local indigenous cultures.

Rather, what the conversation should be about is the determination of what is “core” to Christianity and what could be packaging. Jesus is core. But is the claim that He is the only Savior of the world core too? Answering this question in the affirmative or negative will necessarily affect one’s “packaging.”

In the quest for theological clarity, perhaps the story of a “McDonald’s with a Singaporean face” may prove helpful.

After all, as Pope Francis reminds us, we believe in the “God of surprises”.

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