Imagine that you are walking along the bank of a river. You look into the river… but you have difficulty seeing much beyond the surface. Sure, you can see the surface of the river. You can see the ripples on the surface. But below that is rather obscured. Reflections of light off of the surface obscure the view. Refraction of light as it is affected by the water and the ripples on the surface distort objects below. Finally, sediments in the water absorb light and make it murky, further making it difficult to see below the surface. To see clearly what is below the surface, one really needs to get into the water
Now, imagine that you are not looking at a river, but looking at a culture. You are an outsider to a culture. You have no problem seeing the surface of that culture. Such surface things may be what people in the culture wear, how they sound, what they eat, and so forth. However, deeper issues within the culture are hard to see and are distorted.
As an outsider, it is hard to understand their values and family systems. It is difficult to see clearly their aspirations, their fears, or their adaptive mechanisms. To really understand what is going on in the culture, one needs to immerse oneself in that culture.
<NOTE: This is mostly from a chapter of the book that I am MOSTLY done with… “Ministry in Diversity.” The ideas here in Part 1 are to a large extent from Dr. Dan Russell, although I not totally sure where he got them from. But then I will add a final section that connects the metaphor for culture to theology. That part is not in the book.>
Returning to the river metaphor, suppose you want to jump into the river. Perhaps it is a warm day, and the cool water appears inviting. When you jump into the water, especially if the river has a cold source, there is an initial shock to your system. In part, this is because one’s body has already adapted to the air along the bank of the river. But diving in, the difference of temperature, combined with the differences in conductive and convective cooling of the flowing water startles your body. However, often in a few minutes, your body has adapted, and the water now feels comfortable… perhaps even more comfortable than being out of the water.
Imagine now that you are not jumping into a river, but “immersing” yourself in a new culture. Very often there is an immediate “shock” in the experience. You were well adapted in behavior and language to the culture you were in… but now your are disoriented. The language is different, the routines are different, the social connections are different. The disorientation associated with this is called Culture Shock.
In time, however, you, if you are like most people, will adjust. You learn the language enough for basic communication, you learn how to eat, maneuver, and deal with various social activities. You might even get to the point that you would rather stay in this new culture. The process of adapting to the new culture is called Acculturation. More on acculturation will be covered in a later chapter.
Let’s stay with the river metaphor but add animals. Which animal would understand the river best? That is, which animal would have the highest level of experience-based understanding of the characteristics of water in the river.
The first animal to consider would be a Fish. A fish should have a pretty strong understanding of the water and the river since the fish spends all of its time in that environment. While that makes sense, there are limits. A fish doesn’t have much to compare to. It has no experience of land except the mud and rocks at the bottom of the river. It has no experience of the air except the tiny amount of experience it may have at the surface of the river. There is a saying that goes, “If you want to know about water, do NOT ask a fish.” And that makes sense. A fish would have a hard time explaining water since it doesn’t have much of anything to compare it to. We tend to understand things by comparing them to other things.
The second animal to consider is a Cat. Most cats don’t really care for the water. They will swim if they they have no choice. They will drink water if they can find a quiet pool. But for the most part, cats (with the exception of tigers) generally stay away from all but the edges of rivers. Their understanding of the river is superficial. They can taste the water of the river and can see the surface of the river. They may see distorted images of fish swimming below, but not much else. Cats have a limited understanding of rivers.
The third animal to consider is a Duck. Ducks live in several environments. Ducks make their nests on land or, for some species, in trees. They often walk on land. They fly in the air. They also swim on the surface of the river. Many types of ducks also dive. They dive into the river and swim underwater to get food.
A duck has a considerable advantage over the fish and the cat. The fish may know a lot about rivers but lacks the knowledge of other environments to effectively explain the characteristics. The cat has only a superficial understanding of the river. But a duck knows the surface of the river intimately, and the environment underwater reasonably well, although less than a fish. However, its advantage over the fish is in its considerable knowledge of other environments that it can compare the river to.
Let’s bring this back to culture. Suppose we have two cultures: Culture A and Culture B. Suppose we want to know about Culture B. Who would know Culture B the best?
A fish corresponds to someone who has only lived in Culture B. He knows a lot about his own culture, but very little of other cultures. He is a Monocultural individual. As noted in a previous chapter, a person who is monocultural is limited in understanding his own culture because he lacks knowledge of other cultures for comparison. He does not know what makes his own culture different from others because he doesn’t know what is unique to his culture and what is common to all humanity. One can describe him as having an Emic perspective. Emic means that he has the perspective of an cultural insider. That perspective has both positive and negative aspects for understanding.
A cat corresponds to someone who lives in Culture A, but looks in on Culture B This is an Etic perspective, or outsider perspective. This perspective gives opportunity for comparison between cultures A and B, but the perspective is hampered by the superficiality of the understanding of Culture B.
A duck corresponds to someone from Culture A (etic perspective) who also has considerable experience in Culture B. The cross-cultural perspective involving intentional crossing of cultural bounds to learn another culture is methodologically described as “participant-observation.” That means that one is actively involved in culture B (participant) but doing so as one from an outside culture (observer). The goal is that one has the understanding of diverse cultures for comparison… something lacking in a strictly emic perspective, while having a deeper understanding of the new culture… something lacking in an etic perspective.
Part 2 relates this to Theology… particularly Contextualized Theology.