Cultural Anthropology– A Christian Perspective?

A book I like, and have used before in my classes on Cultural Anthropology is “Cultural Anthropology– A Christian Perspective” by Stephen A. Grunlan and Marvin K. Mayers (1988). You can find it by CLICKING HERE.

I decided to do something yesterday that I pretty much never do— read the reader comments (in this case on the Amazon page for this book).

  1. The most thorough reviewer gave the book a 3 out of 5. It seems that the thing the reviewer was concerned about was that the authors may not be strong enough on “Biblical Absolutism.” The book deals considerably on the issue of Biblical Absolutism versus Cultural Relativism. I felt authors did an admirable job in this task. Perhaps there was a concern on the reviewers part not about Biblical Absolutism but rather Bibical Cultural Absolutism. A lot of Christian conservatives struggle with this. For example, if women are supposed to express a submissive attitude and demonstrate this, in part, by wearing a head covering in 1st century Hellenized churches, does that mean that all churches in all cultures at all points in history must do likewise? Anyway, the reviewer noted how difficult it is to have a good balance between these concepts, and that good people can disagree somewhat. Overall, I thought it a pretty good review.
  2. There are several that are of the sort, “I really liked the book, and you should buy it.” Nothing wrong with these, but they are not hugely informative.
  3. An interesting one is a 1 out of 5 score post that starts out “This book is a horrible, almost criminal, misuse of anthropology.” It ends with “This book disgusts me, like all missionization.” Of course, the last statement explains the first statement (except for the expression “almost criminal” which I suppose is used for rhetorical effect). In the middle, the writer condemns the authors (conflated into the singular), “If the author understood anything about the discipline, he would know that it is about relativism and respect for differences” I don’t really have a problem with review. It expresses his understanding of (presumably cultural) anthropology. I am a bit curious about the purpose of the review, however. If the reviewer really does embrace relativism and respect for differences, why does the review appear to be rather disrespectful of a difference of perspective, and quite non-relativistic. I assume (perhaps incorrectly) that it is of the sort, “I am tolerant of everyone except the intolerant.” The curious thing, however, is that the book is trying to right the wrongs of the past where missional zeal often mixed the sharing of the gospel with cultural imperialism. The books seeks to find ways to find a balance between sharing one’s faith with respecting culture. I think the idea that the book is utilizing the tools of anthropology to support “cultural genocide” is a bit extreme. The truth is that cultures are constantly interacting with other cultures and cultures are constantly changing. Cultural anthropology respects all cultures, but does not (should not at least) support an artificial static idea of culture. Rather than seeing interaction as bad, it should see how such interaction can be good. I am reminded of talking to Brazilian Christians who expressed unhappiness with the government for making it illegal to share the gospel with the isolated native groups that dot the Amazon basin. In the minds of the Brazilian Christians, these isolated groups are not generally isolated anyway. They do interact with illegal loggers, drug groups, land speculators and more. These groups will (and do) interact with outsiders— the question is whether they will be interacting with those that help or those that hurt.
  4. The last one I will note is another 1 out of 5 score. The person complains about the title of the book, nothing that there are 3 perspectives for cultural anthropology— “(1) cross-cultural, or looking at other cultures than our own, (2) holistic, or looking at all parts of culture in relation to each other, and (3) relativistic, or looking at each culture as its own standard of values and meaning. Notice there is no “Christian perspective.”” For some reason, I actually took the statement positively. Somehow I thought the writer was saying, “There is no one single ‘Christian perspective;’ but there are in fact many different Christian perspectives.” And that would be true. The perspective of the book is “Conservative, evangelical, mission-forward, Christian” perspective. There is no doubt, it is not the only perspective that could be called Christian. Of course, I should not have jumped into this benefit of the doubt, because there was really no doubt. The reviewer was saying that there are only 3 valid perspectives, and none of them is “Christian.” That, as you probably figured out for yourself, is non-sense. First of all, a study of culture through the lens of a different culture (perspective #1, cross-cultural) is common… perhaps the most common. And a lens of culture can be Christian just as much as it can be Buddhist, or Serbian, or Zulu, or anything else. However, this book is not about studying cultures through the cross-cultural lens of Christianity, technically speaking. Christian perspective is not so much about cultures abut about cultural anthropology. In line with that, the term has more to do with theories of cultural anthropology (of which there are MANY) as well as theories of applied anthropology. The reviewer suggested two titles as more appropriate— “Destroying Other Cultures with Your Culture” or “Destroying Anthropology by Misusing It.” Again, since the book was written to try to counteract unhealthy forms of cultural imperialism while still being true to the mandate to share God’s message to the world, I feel that the first title is off-base. As far as the second title, I feel nothing much one way or another about it. A tool can be used in many ways. I am not sure that using it in a way that one doesn’t like should automatically be considered “misuse.” I mean, the reviewer calls himself (presumably not herself), Franz Boas. Since Franz Boas, a great mind in cultural anthropology, has been dead since 1942, it could be argued that he is misusing that name. Or maybe not. Misuse is awfully subjective.

I would say, read it for yourself. It is now getting to be a bit ‘long in the tooth’ but I feel it has aged better than many from the same period.

The Magi and The Preparation for the Gospel

Praeparatio Evangelica, or preparation for the Gospel, is a term used referring to the belief that God has sown seeds of the gospel message in other cultures that will only fully bear fruit with the arrival of the message of Bible. Don Richardson believes that redemptive analogies, stories or images within a culture that express in some way the Christian gospel message, is a form of this preparation of the Gospel. With this thought, redemptive analogies are discovered rather than created.

This point can be questioned. The Bible uses Roman adoption as a redemptive analogy. Does this mean that God created the adoption process within that culture so as to provide a way of expressing an honor-shame redemptive analogy to contrast the guilt-innocence redemptive analogy associated with the Roman justice system (which then was also created by God)? Still there are missionary stories of redemptive analogies within a culture that seem too good to be accidents. More broadly, can truths in other religions be said to have been created by God to prepare for the full gospel, or should they be seen as man-made expressions of human longings that can be used as bridges for the gospel.

Rowan Williams speaks of the Magi in terms of the how other faiths can serve as a preparation for the gospel. He notes how the Magi, perhaps Zoroastian and most likely drawing from the long-standing tradition of astrology from Babylon and Persia, were led by a star. Williams notes that the star led them to close to the new King, but ultimately to the wrong house. The limited understanding that their belief system contained brought them to the court of Herod the Great, not to a house in Bethlehem. It actually took Holy Scripture to bring them the rest of the way. This could point both to the possibility and limitation of this preparation. Ultimately, the Magi found the Christ, while those who had the Hebrew Scriptures in the palace in Jerusalem did not bother to travel approximately 10 kilometers to see for themselves. <Refer to N.T. Wright’s podcast, “#49 Other Faiths, Judaism and Gnosticism,” Ask N.T. Wright Anything. December 18, 2020.>

Real and Unreal of Race

I have been teaching cultural anthropology here in the Philippines. I wrote a book for the class so that students did not have to grab chapters from several different books. I still feel pretty good about the book, but as I have taught the class I have started to notice some issues. One of these is the chapter on Race. The chapter is quite short because I felt like I had written everything I had wanted to about the topic. But as time went on, I feel like I have short-changed the topic.

But why would I? I come from a country where race is a big issue. In fact, for some people, it looks like it is their ONLY issue (and I am not just talking about one side of the issue). So why would I give the topic so little emphasis?

First, I think the main reason is that I understand that Race is essentially Unreal. Traditionally, race was used in a way that today might be called ethnicity or people group. Aristides, for example, speaks of four races or classes of man— Greeks Barbarians, Jews, and Christians. That use of the term is rather obsolete, so there was no reason to put that in the chapter on race. Into the 17th and 18th centuries, race was tied to physical traits much as it is often now. However, it is hard to draw lines in mankind because physical variations in humans are actually rather trivial in terms of geographic regions, and defy clear taxonomies. Years ago, people talked of Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid, but so many did not fit well into these categories. Early 1900s, there was White, Black, Yellow, Brown, and Red. These five groups fit slightly better (although none of labels, except MAYBE brown, is very descriptive). The labels still appear to be pretty arbitrary. More recently, some (like Jared Diamond) have used a different five— White Black, Asian, African Pygmy, and Xhosan. This also seems pretty arbitrary. In the 19th century was the growth of the theory of biological evolution. Race in this case is a rank below sub-species, implying that it is on route to becoming a separate species from the rest. Considering the relative genetic sameness across all peoples of the world, this understanding of human race is pretty silly (regardless of your view of biological evolution). But out of it came Race Science, which ultimately attempted to demonstrate in different ways why “I am better than You because I come from a Superior Race than you.” Again, studies in genetics work to sabotage any real basis for this… though many don’t let go of the idea easily. Today Race is seen as a more informal social construct (like in America where races or ‘ethnicities’ are identified (white, black, asian, hispanic, native American, etc.) in a manner that puts people together and separates others for rather arbitrary societal reasons rather than based on sound categories of similarity and dissimilarity.

2. Race is tied to bad theology. When I was young, I was told that there were three races- White, Black, Asian, and that they sprang up from the sons of Noah. Japheth was the father of the “White” races, Ham was the father of the “Black” races, and Shem of Semitic and other Asian races. Of course, even as a young child I was rather suspicious of this. The family tree of Noah did not really line up with present-day racial designations. In fact, it looked like a way to link Blacks with the “bad son” of Noah— Ham. While my church did not do this (thankfully), some churches did use this flawed logic to justify slavery. (I am not sure how Whites could use the idea that they descended from a “good son” of Noah, Japheth, as a reason for doing something evil— enslaving others and treating them as property. But as my dad said, never assume that people think through racist opinions fully.) Later on, I learned of British-Israelism, that saw the British or perhaps Americans as the ‘lost tribes of Israel.’ While I had at least one friend who passionately believed this, the argument appeared to be so strained, that I struggle to see any sense to this one. Some groups have even dredged up the idea of “Pre-Adamic” races, based on NOTHING in the Bible to create a category of ‘sub-humans’ to give people an OUT on the Great Commandment. Presumably, if some people are sub-human then one doesn’t have to love them as one loves oneself. (But would it? Strangers and Aliens in Luke 19 were supposed to be shown hospitality. How could one identify human versus sub-human aliens?)

But there is a problem with treating race as unreal. When one treats it as unreal, one tends not to see the term used abusively. Race DOES exist as a social construct, made by people for their own reasons. Race is used to interpret experiences and guide behavior. We tend not to see color differentiations until we have labels for them. We tend not see abuse until we recognize a label to go with it. (I am amazed at how many Christians cannot identify Spiritual Abuse, until they have embraced a label for it.) Just because race is based on bogus taxonomies does not mean it is irrelevant in the minds of people who think based on racial constructs.

For example, I am of Swedish ancestry so I would be considered Caucasoid or White. My wife is of Filipino ancestry, meaning that she is considered to be of Mongoloid, Brown, or Yellow, or Asian racial group. I am considered by people to be part of a ‘mixed race’ marriage. My wife and I got married in the Commonwealth of Virginia in the United States. If we had tried to marry there prior to the mid-1960s we would not have been allowed because of ‘miscegenation laws, ‘ the mixing or races. My children are considered to be bi-racial (except by pre-2000 US census collection where my children would have been required to ‘pick one race’). As foolish as all of this sounds to me, these categories do not go away because they exist in people’s minds.

Another example has been in the response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Some have gotten bothered by the statement, “Black Lives Matter.” Some are bothered because it seems to reinforce racial designations. Others don’t like it because it seems to support a less than Biblical perspective. Isn’t it true that “All Lives Matter”? However, when one ignores a social reality, the problem tends to be made worse. Let me give an example. As noted before, my wife and I are thought of as being part of a mixed-race couple. We have been pretty blessed in having received relatively little grief for being ‘mixed-race,’ and the little grief we have received—- well, we were able to “consider the source.” But many mixed race couples have received a lot of discrimination and even hostility. Suppose someone created an organization, “God Loves Mixed Race Families.” I could imagine someone saying this is a bad name because clearly, “God Loves All Families.” They would be right… but also wrong… because it fails to challenge the prejudices. A positive statement that is generally applied vaguely, does not strike the target. People who would see the name, “God Loves All Families” would tend to see that type of family that they themselves would tend to love. Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan because the people would have made the Parable of the Good Human Being fit their own prejudices. Likewise, saying that the name of the group is invalid since there are really no such things as races anyway, may have a point in a genetic or phenotypic sense. But raceS DO exist as social constructs and do indeed guide how people are judged and acted for or against.

Another example is that I am part of a denomination in which some of the major seminary presidents have come out against CRT (Critical Race Theory) and Intersectionality. Of course, CRT is such a general term that one can find a flavor of it that pretty much anyone would be against. However, to recognize the importance of race as a social construct that guides social behaviors at pretty much every level in a society… well, that is just the way it is. As such, it is a valid form of analysis for a wide range of fields. Of course, to say it is a valid form of analysis doesn’t mean that (1) it is the only valid form of analysis, (2) it is the most valid form of analysis, or (3) all versions of it are valid forms of analysis. Just coming out against it seems remarkably naive for theologians. (Of course I have not read their individual perspectives on CRT, and so I hope these are far more nuanced.)

As far as intersectionality, its general meaning is “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” (Oxford Languages)

As a Caucasian American living in a predominantly Asian community in an Asian country gives me a wide and seemingly contradictory set of advantages and disadvantages. Being married to one from this country adds further twists. Again, on some level intersectionality is simply true. Being opposed to intersectionality is, to some extent, being opposed to gravity, or the first law of thermodynamics. If you reject the extreme views regarding intersectionality… I am sure I am right there with you. The problem is that to deal with issues of race, one needs to avoid finding “straw men” to erect and knock down. In missions and in culture, issues of race don’t go away by simply acting like such discussions are invalid or exaggerated.

Looking over this post… Yes, I think there are things I should add to my chapter on Race. For missionaries, and people working in any place where people judge people based on a construct that we call race (essentially everywhere) it is something that must be addressed and taken seriously. When racism is revealed, it may create problems. When racism is ignored, the problems become even greater. When racism is denied, the problems explode.

An article that is not totally related, but still related enough is one by Jackson Wu,

Selective Exposure, Confirmation Bias, and Information Overload (Part 1)

You would think that we would be able to reason better in the age where we have more sources of information, better tools to evaluate information, and a broader range of available perspectives. But that does not seem to be the case. In fact, It may be the opposite. Foolish thought appears to be a bigger problem than ever.

But if you think about it, this should not be surprising. We live in an age of information overload. Robert Dykstra’s book, “Finding Ourselves Lost: Ministry in the Age of Overwhelm,” notes that we are drowning in information, and this leads to stress. So what do we do when we become overwhelmed in information?

  • We can vascillate back and forth as different information and perspectives are absorbed. That, however, adds to the stress.
  • We can bend to authority. Pre-modern thought tends toward ancient authorities (philosophers, prophets, holy writ, etc.). Modern thought tends toward modern authorities (scientists, engineers, recognized experts, etc.) However, most people who are reading this are probably more post-modern than they think.
  • We can practice selective exposure. This where we intentionally limit the amount of data and the sources of data.

Selective exposure is not in itself bad. We can’t handle all the information that is available. However, it can be a part of an ugly cycle.

  1. John (to name someone at random) comes into a situation with preconceived worldview and beliefs.
  2. John lives in a globalistic, pluralistic, multi-perspectival world with a huge amount of data to process.
  3. John, being human, doesn’t want to add unnecessary stress to his life. Unconsciously, John tends to find data that supports his preconceptions more compelling than data that challenges him to change. This is confirmation bias. Consciously, John tends to seek sources of information that he finds more compelling (ie. supporting his preconceptions) and avoid those sources that he finds less compelling (ie. challenging his preconceptions). This is selective exposure.
  4. John is not only a human, but a social being, and culture-creating being. Living in a multicultural, multi-perspectival, globalistic world, is stress inducing because it challenges one to rethink and change. As such, John is likely to slide into a sub-culture (either physical or virtual) that is consistent with his own beliefs and values. That creates what is colloquially called an echo chamber.
  5. This sub-culture tends to reinforce the beliefs of John, and may even move John to more extreme versions of his own previous beliefs. This feeds back into step 1 and the cycle continues.

There seemed to be a belief that globalism and technology would tear down cultures. Perhaps there is some truth to that… but as monocultures break down physically, they seem to increase in virtual communities.

I consider this to be a problem. It is a problem for society. It is a problem as one who wants to grow and learn as a person rather than simply spin one’s wheels. And as a missionary, I am called upon to be both cross-cultural and culturally sensitive. The cycle described above is damaging for missionaries, and ministries.

I will suggest a way that may reduce the cycle… in Part 2 (when I get around to posting it.).

Good Theology Requires Good Anthropology

Just a few thoughts that were bumping around in my head today. I figured I better write them down before they fade away. I may edit this post, or replace it with a new post later.

Good Theology Requires Good Anthropology (as it says above). I believe this statement is true for several reasons.

  1. All theology is contextual. If that statement is true, as I believe it is, then the context in which a theology is designed for must be understood. This requires cultural or social anthropology. Since I have talked about this one so much in the past, I feel that I don’t need to dwell on it further here.
  2. Our understanding of God is commonly based on an understanding of ourselves. Much of our understanding of God is ex negativo. We understand God by what He is not. Most commonly, this draws on our understanding of ourselves. When we say that God is omnipotent, some people like to say, “That means God can do everything and anything.” But that is not really what that means. A better understanding is more like, “So, you know how everything and everyone we know are limited in terms of power? Well, God is not like that.” An awful lot of the attributes of God are really just contrasts to ourselves and our perspectives. But since mankind is created in God’s image (imago Dei), an understanding of ourselves also is suggestive of God (creativity, imagination, humor, love of variety, desire for attachment and socialization). Finally, we also use metaphors to understand God and many of these are tied to humans or human qualities (like Shepherd or Heavenly Father). Since metaphors for God inform by the tension of the logical disconnect between God and Man, we understand God more by understanding who we are, and who we are not.
  3. God’s special revelation of His Word was created within human interaction to be understandable by humans. Humanity is part of God’s general revelation (as part of His creation, and part of history). Therefore, to understand these revelations in developing a theology takes a solid understanding of what it means to be human.
  4. Theology is an attempt to understand God’s mission regarding mankind and His creation. Soteriology and Hamartiology don’t make a whole lot of sense if we don’t have a healthy understanding of mankind as being both loved by God, and separated from God. We can’t really come to terms with our responsibility as witnesses of Christ, stewards of His creation, and servants of God, if we don’t come to terms with some way the challenges of individual free will, social responsibility, and the will of God.

I think I will stop here for now. But I definitely feel I have seen some pretty toxic theologies out there. Some make an honest attempt to be Biblical— at least if “biblical” means picking certain verses that support the narrative of choice. I believe, however, a clear understanding of who humans are (individually and corporately) would greatly reduce some of the problems that come up in theology (systematic and practical).

Cultural Landmines and “The Pineapple Story”

Otto Koning served in Irian Jaya back when it was part of the Dutch East Indies. He wrote the story, “The Pineapple Story.” It was a story we covered in our Intro to Missions class years ago. The story is all over the Web, so I will let you read it yourself. One could argue that the story addresses the issue of anger in missionaries. In many parts of the world, anger is seen as a sin. I was brought up in a church where anger (except for so-called “righteous anger”) was thought sinful. I don’t think anger is sinful in itself… but when one cannot control one’s temper, sin can result… and certainly undermining God’s work because one cannot control one’s temper is a sin. The story can also be seen as the problems of ownership. A lot of our problems as missionaries reduce if we can stop bringing our own sense of ownership with us. If all things are seen as God’s not our own… we are better prepared to deal with different understandings of material goods.

That latter part was where I had a bit of a problem with the story at first. The story emphasized that the local people were thieves. Koning had planted pineapples and the people kept stealing them. I had some concerns about this. After all, he planted tropical plants on tribal lands. Isn’t it possible that as such, the fruits were considered community property. In fact, it seems that the tribe’s attitude is “You plant it, you eat it.” Since the missionary owned the land BUT did not plant the pineapples, they were not seen as his to control. Sometimes different models of ownership can cause problems in the mission field. After all, Biblically speaking, stealing is a sin, and stealing is illegal taking of what is someone else’s. However, what is someone else’s is generally culturally defined. That is why stealing is not only deontological, it is also contextual. (There was an interesting episode on Gold Rush where Parker and friends are about to go after “gold thieves” only to discover that under Australian Law, what the people were doing was not theft, neither was it illegal. But if Parker and friends had harmed these “thieves,” Parker and friends would have been in trouble.)

However, as I looked into the story more, it was clear that the taking of stuff wasn’t just about community land. Koning talks considerably about the rampant thievery that went on pretty generally. I don’t know whether this was done by everyone against everyone else, or if the missionary family were especially targeted. I do have a friend who lived in foreign country who’s house was commonly broken into. It seemed to my friend that the people there were “just a bunch of thieves.” However, I am familiar with the people he worked with, and they do not generally have a culture of breaking into people’s houses. Thinking of “The Pineapple Story” there seemed to be a correlation. My friend had an anger problem and he lived in an area were emotional self-control was very much esteemed. So perhaps he was targeted because he was considered a bad person in that place.

Alternatively, some cultures have very different ethical rules regarding who are treated “Us” versus “Them.” Perhaps because my friend was a “Them” (and he was) it was considered okay to treat him poorly. Hardly surprising. I am from the US, and the US has a history of mistreating people based on their ethnic or racial background. Today, that is looked down on… but legal status still is held onto as a place for being an ethical “respecter of persons.” Some people in my home country think mistreating illegal aliens as a righteous thing. Weird, but hardly surprising. Jesus said that one must love one’s neighbors— both friends and enemies— because, people loved their friends but hated their enemies— Roman, Greeks, Pagans… whatever.

There are a lot of landmines in missions. I will add one more. If you click on the link above (okay, I will add it also HERE) there is talk that Koning gave on the pineapple story. It is very entertaining, but also rather “cringy.” You see, the talk was given some time ago… looks like late 80s or perhaps early 90s. He says some things that are a bit hard. He speaks “jungle folk,” talks about how bad the people there smell, and mentions how much they sterilized a can opener after it had been worn as a necklace by one of the local women. Terms like “thieves” and “rascals” were used. Of course, he was trying to be entertaining (and he was). It is also true that language that may be considered “normal” in one generation can be pretty offensive in another. Further, back then, I suppose there was an understanding that one could say whatever one wanted to when preaching in the US because the people in New Guinea would never hear it. I am sure that was true then… but not now. I have friends from tribal groups in New Guinea who can surf the Web as good as anyone else. It is awkward to talk about people when they are listening in.

There is no condemnation here. In fact, I like the fact that much of Koning’s talk is humor directed at himself. Humor is touchy when one crosses cultural lines. However, when one’s humor is self-depreciating, it is more likely, at least, to be accepted.

Missions Anthropology Thoughts

<The following is actually some guidance for my students in Cultural Anthropology class. But others can read it if they want.>

Cultural Anthropology has been called Missions Anthropology by some, and when Cultural Anthropology is used by missionaries for solutions to ministry questions, the term Missions Anthropology is quite appropriate.

One of the goals of Missions Anthropology is to change how missionaries and ministers react to cultural differences. Here are two ways of looking at cultural differences.

#1. The Common Response. A Christian sees something different in a culture.

a. That cultural behavior is done by them (non-Christians). And…

b. That cultural behavior is not being done by us (Christians). Therefore…

c. That cultural behavior is unchristian, and must be stopped.

But is that a good response? For hundreds of years, Christians did not use cellphones. This does not mean that cellphones are unchristian. It also does not mean that cellphones cannot be utilized for good. So here is a second response…

#2. The Uncommon Response. A Christians sees something different in a culture.

a. That cultural behavior is done by them (non-Christians). And…

b. That cultural behavior is not being done by us (Christians). Therefore…

c. What would this cultural behavior look like in a Christ-redeemed culture?

Let me give an example.

In Japan, the dominant religion is Shintoism. Actually, Shintoism is in many ways, more of a collection of values and practices than a fully functioning religion. Shinto shrines are all over Japan, and even in public places such as subways. For many Japanese, their practice is to fit religion into their brief moments of free time, so they may step into a shrine for a couple of minutes while waiting for their train to take them home from work.

So let’s look at this situation from the two different responses.

Response #1. These little Shinto Shrines all over Japan are not Christian. They are places of worship to false gods, and must be destroyed so that Christ can be glorified. Japanese people should stop going to shrines at different times of the week, but should go to church on Sundays at 10am… just like us.

Response #2. The Japanese look for opportunities to pray, meditate, and express religious reverence in quick little moments in their lives. What would a vibrant Christianity look like within this culture? Maybe it would have little prayer rooms scattered throughout the country, where Japanese people can take a quick break from their busy lives to pray to God… to read some words of Scripture… and to meditate on God and His message. In some larger prayer rooms, they may have chaplains there to help them with their concerns and to be a guide for them.

I think Response #2 is better than Response #1. Response #1 says that Japanese can come to Christ by destroying the things that make them unique. To become Christian, they have to stop being Japanese in any culturally distinct ways. Response #2 recognizes that Christianity around the world is diverse and centered on God. Therefore, Japanese Christianity can be uniquely different from other forms of Christianity, much like Greek Christianity was very different from Jewish Christianity in the first century.

Why am I mentioning this? A few of you have made some rather strong statements. For example, one might talk about something which is done in their culture, but then say, we (Christians) don’t do that because it is unchristian. To me, that is not a good answer.

  • If it is unchristian because it is sinful, then is there a way that it can be done without sin? For example, in the Philippines, fiestas often are tied to adoration of saints and icons, and often have a lot of drunkenness and gambling. These may be sinful, but is there a way that fiestas can be participated in that is not sinful?
  • If it is unchristian because it is something practiced by non-Christians, then is there a way that Christians can connect with the culture through the practice, while still being Christian. For example, if one is in a Muslim country where Ramadan is widely practiced, is there a way that Christians can show that they are part of the culture (not members of an alien or foreign faith)? Can Christians honor the cultural practice of Ramadan as a show of honor to the culture and to their neighbors, while still honoring Christ?

My point here is that for that class, when you are talking about a cultural item or a cultural practice, if you say that it is “wrong” or that it is unchristian… I will ask you, “Why is it wrong?” or “What makes it unchristian?” And I may ask you, “What needs to change for it be a healthy part of the lives of Christians who are of that culture?”

The Shaman’s Doorway

I don’t really do reviews because a review really requires a type of reading and analysis that I don’t really like doing—-

The Shaman's Doorway: Opening Imagination to Power and Myth: Stephen  Larsen, John Halifax: 9780892816729: Amazon.com: Books

and I don’t want to be one of those who gives positive reviews for books that support my opinions, and bad reviews for books that don/t. However, this is an interesting book to me for a few reasons. Stephen Larsen’s book, “The Shaman’s Doorway: Opening Imagination to Power and Myth,” was published in 1976, originally by Harper and Row. Here are a few minor thoughts.

  1. I was a bit surprised that the book wasn’t really focused on shamanism. This is not to say that it did not give weight to the topic. In fact, there were two North American shamans that were give sizable sections in the book.
  2. The greater emphasis was on the role of (ancient) myths in cultures, and archetypes in people. Not surprisingly then, Joseph Campbell and C.G. Jung were given a great deal of prominence in the book.
  3. I was surprised at the passionate tone of the book. Although cultural anthropology promotes participant observation, the books that I have tended to read (especially of the more secular variety) write more academically… more dispassionately. The author is one who is seeking a certain amount of spirituality or transcendancy, and has been greatly influenced by the late 60s and early 70s in the United States, where new ways of looking at spirituality have been promoted.
  4. Related to the previous point, the author speaks of his own attempt at dabblling with different paths to spirituality. It is pretty clear that he is not a fan of traditional Christianity, or of other “Western.” He speaks also of his delving into mysticism, and Eastern faiths (especially yoga). He noted problems with these as well.

His main thesis is five stages or types of mythic engagement.

Stage #1. Mythic Identity. Larsen sees this in terms of spiritual possession. This may be seen in ecstatic faiths, psychedelic experiences, shamanism, channeling, demon possession, mass hysteria, etc.

Stage #2. Mythic Orthodoxy. Larsen sees this in terms of religion. Myths move to dogma. He sees this as an “extroverted” view since the answers in life are seen as external to the adherent, in terms of an Ultimate Reality external to the members, that are regulated by dogma and ritual.

Stage #3. Objective Phase. Larsen sees this in terms of science. This is the realm of the scientist, skeptic, and modernist… who believe that myths myths must be verified or tossed out. (Note: I feel that Larsen takes a pre-Kuhn view in seeing science as objective seeking to be embedded in reality and skeptical of myth. Also note that Larsen tends to view the term “myth” to mean things that are NOT real, yet may be useful. As such, he seems to embrace the idea that scientism may be correct, but creating an untenable place for humans who need our myths and archetypes.)

Stage #4. Suspended Engagement. This is the realm of (Eastern) meditation such as in yoga. If (Western) religion is seen as extroverted, this is considered introverted. One seeks truth by looking inward. However, its asceticism tends to deny the naturalness of being human.

Stage #5. Mythic Engagement and Renewal. This is the stage of transformation and dialogue. This seems to be somewhat poorly defined, but appears to be embracing some aspects of Campbell and Jung, along with some components of Stage #1. (The author notes that Stage #1 is difficult for most since it is sort of the realm of madness. He sees some value in Stage #1, but without become lost in the experience of spiritual transformation or ecstasy.)

It is pretty clear that Larsen has issues with Stages 2, 3, and 4. Stages 2 (Western “extroverted” faiths) and 4 (Eastern “introverted” faiths) do not embrace the “naturalness of life.” They seek mind over matter. Stage 3 seeks a desacralized view of the world that is psychologically empty. However, few if any can embrace Stage 1, the realm of saints, shamans, and madmen.

His approach supports a certain “third way” between introversion and extroversion, the naturalness of our humanity seriously, It embraces the myths that are rooted so deeply in our humanity without becoming completely lost in them.

Obviously, I am a Christian and as such I fit into the category of dogmatic religion, or Stage 2. Yet, as I look at what Larsen is saying, it seems to me that Christian mysticism could be seen Stage 5. Christian mysticism includes many of the saints that fit into Stage 1. Yet at the same time clearly do work within the framework of ultimate reality (dogma) from Stage 2, and honor of meditation (stage 4).

Of course, I am not required to agree with his views (and neither is anyone else). However, I do think that there is some value to this model… especially in how it seeks to take myth or archetypes seriously, while addressing our humanity seriously.

As a missionary, one needs to deal with people with any of these five worlds. I would also suggest that a missionary may live in one of the stages, but should not be uncomfortable with any of these stages. Arguably, it may be valuable to follow the guidance of Paul to contextualize (a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks) One could see these stages as different worldviews, and we must be able to understand and interact with all of them.

What About Physical Anthropology?

So I have started teaching Cultural Anthropology again. In my intro to the class, I like to start with Anthropology as a general term to describe “The Study of Man.” And then I like to add my little note that in Old English, “Wer” meant adult male, “Wif” meant adult female and “Man” or “Mann” meant human or homo sapien, so Anthropology is not a sexist term. In fact the Greek term “Anthropos,” although male in ‘gender’ (a linguistic term) can be referring to men, or to women, or to people in general. However, we don’t really speak Old English today, and the feeling today is that Man is a term for adult males… so Anthropology is the study of human beings.

Wow… Did I go off on a tangent or what?

Anthropology is used theologically and scientifically. Theologically, the sub-field of the study of humans within Systematic Theology is called Anthropology. This is a very worthwhile thing for Christians to have studied. A lot of silly things floating around churches today, in part, because of pop theology and pop (sub-) culture influences.

Scientifically, the term “Anthropology” is broadly used. <Being more careful, I just deleted a new tangent where I point out that a lot of what is called “Science” does not actually use the scientific method, but rather a more logico-historical method (which is not that far from Theology, strangely). It doesn’t really matter… or does it?> Classically, Anthropology on the Scientific side of things is broken up into four main sub-fields. They are:

  • Physical Anthropology. The study of the progress or evolution of mankind.
  • Archaeology. The study of ancient mankind, especially through the artifacts left behind.
  • Linguistics. The study of how mankind has, and does, communicate.
  • Cultural Anthropology. The study of living (usually) cultures.

I like to tell my classes that Archaeology is useful for Christian ministers— especially, but not strictly limited to, Biblical Archaeology. I tell my students that Linguistics is valuable for Christian ministers, and especially missionaries, for reasons that I HOPE don’t need to be repeated here. And then Cultural Anthropology is important for all Christian ministers, and I spend the whole semester trying to drive that point home.

However, I commonly note that Physical Anthropology is an area of study that has little bearing on Christian ministers. This is especially true of Evangelical ministers, since I teach at an Evangelical school. Part of this is because Physical Anthropology tends to be structured through the framework of Neo-Darwinism. Most Evangelicals do not believe in Neo-Darwinism, although many may accept a more flexible Intelligent Design understanding such as Theological Evolution.

But I got thinking more about this. I have read a couple of books on popularized physical anthropology (one by Stephen Jay Gould, and another by Jared Diamond) and found them very interesting. Regardless of whether I accept all of their opinions, to say nothing of their underlying framework, I feel that there are some things that that are good for Christians to know.

<Note: If the following stuff makes you think that I have only an undereducated, surface-level knowledge of Physical Anthropology, you are correct. I am noting this more to remind myself that studies outside of one’s area of expertise is important.>

  1. We are made of this world and for this world. We are made of the stuff of this world and fit into the categories that exist for the things in this world. We fit into it genetically and structurally, and fit into the ecological systems of this world. We are not aliens. This world is actually our home. We were created here to be here.
  2. We are like other animals and yet distinct from other animals. Physically, we are animals. We are not only part of this world, but we fit into certain categories of things in this world. We are genetically programmed and reproduce as animals, and made of the same stuff as animals. Some like to point out that we share a high percentange of DNA with chimpanzees (in the high 90s), and yet there are key genetic differences. Those differences are shared by humans at an even higher percent. As humans we share commonality of DNA over 99%. There is no genetic overlap of Gaussian curves— we are physically animals, and yet unique.
  3. We are all one people. There have been theories of pre-Adamic races, or cursed races in Christian circles. There have been attempts at so-called “Race Science.” However, genetic testing, as well as physical comparisons point us toward a common ancestor. Also unlike comparison with other animals, racial or ethnic categories around the world vary only slightly from others around the world. The distribution of traits and alleles most definitely overlap, to the point that it is difficult to be certain of one’s racial or ethnic heritage simply by looking at one’s physical looks or genes. These differences are mostly, quite literally, “skin deep.”
  4. There are no superior or inferior groups. While early on in Physical Anthropology and Race Science, there were attempts to discover what group was the “most evolved.” No shock, the anthropologists came in with a firm bias that their own race was at the top. We seem to be all different, but far more in common than different. Some groups may be ahead technologically (in a specific point of time) but one cannot really line this up clearly with intelligence, moral superiority, or anything else. Stubbornly, we can’t seem to break ourselves away from the fact that we are diverse and yet united. We are equal but different.

I suppose this is enough. One could argue that this doesn’t help since these are pretty consistent with good Theological Anthropology. My answer would be Yes. However, human nature always seems to push us towards creating Us versus Them groupings, and this leads towards deciding that the “We” are superior or more worthy (of something or other) than the “They.” It just seems as if Christians tend pick an choose what the Bible says (often embracing metaphors like “chosen race” or “holy priesthood”) to undermine or common humanity. Others sometimes embrace a semi-Platonic viewpoint that takes humanity out of its place in the physical world, while others relatedly, preach a rather anti-ecological message of “This world is not my home, I’m a just a passin’ through.” There may be ways in which these views have truth, but they don’t express the full Biblical or Theological Truth.

Maybe we need a bit of a reminder from Physical Anthropologists, even if we don’t buy into the total story they may give. We should not stop there. We need to go back to our Theology to understand what it means that we have “Openness to the World,” that we exist in terms of the “Image Dei,” and that we live in tension between our good creation, our state of fallenness, and our potential for restoration.