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.

A Bad Test Question on Worldview

My daughter was preparing for her NCLEX (Nursing exam for the US). In a preparation app for the test (so I don’t know if this question ever showed up in an actual NCLEX) was:

A nurse caring for a (sic) Asian-American client plans care considering the client’s view of illness. Which of the following appropriately describes the Asian-American’s view of illness?

a.  Illness is caused by supernatural forces

b.  Illness is a punishment for sins

c.  Illness is a disharmoniouus state that may be caused by demons and spirits

d.  Illness is caused by an imbalance between yin and yang

So let’s unpack the options.  Option (a) is a possibility. Some might call the idea that illness is caused by supernatual forces a Premodern perspective. It certainly could be the viewpoint of the Asian-American patient. Option (b) is a possibility. Many Asian-Americans, especially from the Abrahamic faiths, definitely might see illness as a punishment for sins. Option (c) is a possibility as well. There are certainly Asian-Americans who could have a more animistic or spiritualistic perspective. Option (d) is also a possibility. A Daoist or Daoist/Buddhist perspective is certainly a possibility.

If all of these are a possibility, which is supposed to be correct? I am guessing that (d) was the one they wanted. When Americans talk about “Asian-Americans” they often picture East-Asians (Chinese, Korean, and Japanese). As such, option (d) would probably fit best. However, one might say option (a) is better since it is the broadest. That is because options (b), (c), and (d) could generally be thought of as being sub-categories of option (a).

However, I could add two more options:

e.  Illness is caused by bacteria, viruses, or other natural phenomena.

f.  Illness is caused by factors that are recognized in the culture they presently live in.

Both of these options make sense. Many Asian-Americans believe in a “modernist” or “materialist” perspective with regards to illness, so option (e) is a possibility. Also, many Asian-Americans assimilate into the culture they now live in, so American beliefs may predominate their thinking, making option (f) a possible answer.

However, there is a best answer. Here it is:

g.  One cannot tell identify the patient’s worldview by their ethnicity or nationality. You will have to ask.

The question is a horrible one. It makes no sense.

That Nagging Racism Problem

A friend of mine (who is not American, but who has lived in the US before) asked the following question on FB:

Aside from prayer, what is your specific solution or concrete and actual suggestions to end the racial problem in the US?

It is hard to give specific, concrete and actual “anything” on FB because of the limitations in that format. I guess I would like to give three modest suggestions.  All of them are targeting Christians in the United States. If Christians in the US were able to get past racism (and knowing that a nice majority of Americans at least describe themselves as Christians), the US would be on the right path.

Teach good Theological Anthropology in church. That is, “What is Mankind in terms of relationship to God, ourselves, and Creation?”  Some churches may teach the Falleness of Man, but to do this they must also emphasize the “Falleness from What?” Some churches speak of the Goodness (or potential goodness) of Man, but must also emphasize what fulfilled goodness would look like in society.

This is not to say that this will come easily.  The early chapters of Genesis undermine the foundations of racism, yet much of the Hebrew Bible points to the challenges the Israelites had with racism, nationalism, and exceptionalism. That disconnect between Israelite view of other peoples and God’s view is the theme of the book of Jonah. In the New Testament, the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles reemphasize God’s love for all peoples regardless of ethnicity, nationality, language, and tribe, and call on the church to break down these barriers. Revelation shows Paradise where all peoples dwell harmoniously, and in harmony with God and Creation. Yet racism has endured.

Still, I remember when I was young and would hear about how the “three races of man” came from the three sons of Noah, and that one of the three (Ham) became the father of “cursed races.” This and other “cursed race” beliefs may belong in Mormon theology, but certainly not Christian theology. Some of these beliefs I heard in church, although at least not preached in the pulpit. In other churches in the US, some learned of “British/American-Israelism” or “Lost Tribe Theology.” Some of these and other teachings actively support racism or national exceptionalism, while others may simply support the status quo.

Just as bad as bad theological anthropology is,  teaching NO theological anthropology may be worse. Some churches actively do NOT teach theology. For some it is seen as not important while for others it is seen as divisive. Unfortunately, if we don’t teach a theologically (Biblically) sound Doctrine of Man, Christians will be getting their beliefs on gender, race, national identity, and more from sensationalizing journalism and hatemongering politics.

Teach Cultural/Social Anthropology in Church. While some churches attempt to train their people in Theological Anthropology, few teach Cultural Anthropology. When I am speaking of cultural anthropology, I am speaking of this topic as seen through a Christian lens. This topic is taken very seriously as a topic of Missiology. It is, however, rarely brought into the church. It is the praxis side of Anthropology. If we are to love all people and share the message of Christ to all people, how do we do so in a way that is understandable to them. How can Christians honor their own birth culture, while being a good Christian, and challenging what is flawed in their own birth culture? How can churches be relevant to their culture— expressing the best of that culture while guiding people to live out that culture as God desires? How do we love all people when some people act and think very different from us?

Cultural Anthropology is not simply doctrinal— meaning in this case imparted to memory.  It must be taught and modeled.

A final suggestion would be to Separate Theology from National Identity. Churches in the US love traditionally to have patriotic songs in their hymnals, a national flag next to the “Christian flag,” behind the altar and pulpit. They love to have fervently patriotic sermons certain times of the year. Some preachers actively bring nationalistic themes into their sermons. I recall one pastor at a church I was attending at the time preaching on the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution. He said that as a Christian there are some beliefs one should be willing to die for— the inerrancy of the Bible, the Trinity, Deity of Christ, the Blood Atonement, and the Right to Bear Arms. Some churches seem better at honoring those who have died for their country than at honoring those who have died for their faith.

But why would this help? Nationalism is not the same as Racism. Agreed, but I believe that mixing national and religious symbols creates a civil religion, and a civil religion, traditionally, supports the status quo. Christianity should be a faith WITHIN American culture, but it never should be seen as the faith OF American culture. In my mind, we have millennia of evidence in Church history and outside of Church history of problems associated with state-sponsored religion, “court prophets,” and religious movements joined uncritically to political movements. The church must have a clear understanding of what its boundaries are and challenge those both inside and outside of those boundaries. It is hard to be a light in darkness, when we find it politically expedient to call the darkness light.

How to Teach Missions Anthropology?

A few weeks ago a friend of mine who teaches at a small missions school asked me what is the most valuable way to teach missions anthropology. I suppose the most valuable way to teach missions anthropology is to do missions anthropology. However, the question was given in the context of a course taught in a predominantly classroom environment.

I think I said at the time that I think the most important or valuable is to do ethnographic research. I still think that is probably the most important… but perhaps I would say things a little different now that I have thought about it more.

The most important or valuable way would involve three things that all, potentially, tie together.

  1. Do a simple ethnographic study of a sub-culture or micro-culture. Ideally it is on a group that one is actually interested in, or one that one plans to minister to. Choose a topic of interest as the focus of curiosity. Determine the right method of research. Carry out the research. Analyze the findings. Reflect on the findings in terms of ministry and culture.
  2. Hold dialogues with people of other cultures. These can be semi-structured or unstructured. Write down the conversation. Reflect on the conversation.
  3. For both items 1 and 2, present to a small group in a clinical case format. That is, one presents the work as a case to a small group. One then interprets the case, and reflects on it theologically, ministerially, and culturally. One then opens oneself up to questions, clarifications, comments and insights, from the rest of the group. Then one reflects on the experience of the small group. (And being part of the small group, one also is on the other side, listening and responding to the ethnographic studies and dialogues of others in the group.)

This I find the most effective for a few reasons. First, it is embedded in the real and relevant. That makes it more practical, and usually more interesting. Second, it helps to learn through the experiences, words, and actions of others. Third, it pushes one towards change of values and perspective. It helps one to see the world from others’ perspectives (both those being studied, and those in one’s group.) Fourth, the actual behaviors can be easily tied to the more academic topics such as taxonomies of groups, and special terminologies.