Maintaining Otherness. Why Do People Fail to Adapt to a New Culture?

I want to focus on one reason for failing to adapt to a new culture, but before I do, I suppose I should list some other reasons first.

#1. Unintentional Ethnocentrism. This is the belief that “Our Way is the Only Way.” This may be unintentional because the person comes from a monocultural setting, perhaps, where there is a homogeneity of beliefs and behaviors. I think this is probably a less common option today. The internet and increased travel makes experience with other cultures much more common. Additionally, when one moves to another culture, unless one is almost completely unreflective, eventually one will make decisions intentionally.

#2. Intentional Ethnocentrism. This is the belief that “Our Way is the Best Way.” In this, the person has thought about adapting but chooses not to because she or he thinks their home culture is better.

#3. Local Collaboration. I am making up this term, but I have seen this a lot. When a foreigner enters a local culture, the locals will often support maintaining the otherness of the foreigner. This is done especially in cultures where hospitality is strong. So locals will make a point of talking, or trying to talk, in the language of the foreigner, so that the person doesn’t feel uncomfortable and have to learn the local language. Other things may include making sure that the foreigner has spoon and fork,or is given a place to stay that conforms to the foreigner’s home setting, These are done to be helpful, but it slows down adaptation.

#4. Expatriate Bonding. Often when a foreigner enters a new culture. Often other foreigners will take the new people under their wing. This is meant to be nice, but it like the previous one. Thomas and Sue Brewster spoke of this sort of bonding for missionaries. Missionaries adapt faster if they don’t bond to missionaries in the field.

I am sure I am missing a lot of others, but I want to spend more time on one.

#5. Maintaining the Advantages of Otherness. With this one, the person is intentional in maintaining otherness, but not necessarily due to ethnocentrism. Rather, there are advantages seen in maintaining a form of foreignness. Some jobs are helped in this. If one owns an ethnic restaurant, is a practioner of ayurvedic medicine, or yoga, or martial arts, there may be economic advantages if one’s persona is is more foreign than local.

A rather unpleasant example is in the area of maintaining power imbalance. Lesslie Newbigin gisves a wonderful example of this in his book “The Finality of Christ” in a letter from a British Colonial governor in India dated 1798.

To preserve the ascendancy which our national character has acquired over the minds of the natives of India must ever be of importance to the maintenance of the political power we possess in the East; and we are well persuaded that this end is not to be served either by a disregard of the external observances of religion or by any assimilations to Eastern manners and opinions, but rather by retaining all the distinctions of our national principles, character, and usages.

Lesslie Newbigin “The Finality of Christ” (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1969), 13. The quote originally from a letter in 1792, is quoted by F. Penney “The Church in Madras, Vol. 1” (London, 1904), 419.

Essentially, the writer appears to be saying that the British can keep the natives under their control if they see the British as different, mysterious, and superior. If the British start adapting to the Indian culture, the locals might start seeing the British as “Just like us.” This letter is not a unique attitude. It was very much the advice of the day. It still can happen today when we don’t pay attention.

Religious leaders often support a certain otherness as well— dressing different, acting different, and such. After all, the pope throughout history has avoided being seen eating in publich NOT because he doesn’t need to eat. Rather, there is the goal to think of the pope as “not really like us” and sharing a meal undermines this.

Jesus actually was quite annoyed at the religious leaders in first century Judea, and this comes largely for their desire to maintain a false front before other people with the hope of that otherness will be interpreted as holiness.

Missionaries can fall into this as well. Ultimately, the example of Jesus was quite different. He was God with us in such a literal way that He was faollowed event though behaving in many ways as “One of Us.”

Writing Dispassionately for Passionate People

I have complained at times about the culture of academic papers where writing is supposed to be dispassionate in tone. One is not supposed to put in exclamation points (!!!) or ALL CAPS or use strongly emotional language to express arguments or ideas. The reason I was given was that research is supposed to be a rationalistic enterprise and any use of language, style, or symbology that appears to seek to be persuasive by any other means than pure rationality was problematic. The problem is that research is changing, especially with the recognition of the value of qualitative research and greater respect for research that is more subjective, phenomenological, immersed in its context, has led to major reevaluation of dispassionate writing.

Recently, I was asked to review a paper for an online service for papers. Some people want to be peer reviewed without going through the fickleness of seminars and journals. (Only twice in my life have I submitted a paper for review to a seminar or journal. The first was submitted to a seminar and it was turned down because my topic was more than slightly off topic to the main thrust of the event <worth a try>. The second was submitted to a journal and was accepted. However, the journal got delayed so many times that I pulled my article back and put it online myself. Just lost interest in that whole thing.)

Sorry, got off topic. I was asked to peer review a paper. It was written by a missiologist I have a fair bit of respect for. I was expecting to find the paper valuable. It was a paper on problems with using anthropology in missions. While I think pretty positively of cultural/social/mission anthropology, I am certainly open to hear valuable insight and critique.

Unfortunately, I began to glance at the article before reading it and saw “GOBBLEDYGOOK” put in all capital letters more than once. Looking at the context around it I found that the writer viewed anthropology as deserving the aforementioned label. Disparaging terms are not very endearing, but I began to read the article. Almost immediately I was thrown by a sentence. The writer was complaining that missionaries were using anthropology, which is secular. The writer suggested that this was a problem. The metric system, the alphabet, and my Moto G cellphone are also secular but these seem to be perfectly fine to use for missions. The claim that something is secular is not an argument against it (in the slightest), and frankly few fields of study have been more influenced by Christian missionaries than cultural anthropology. Clearly, to me at least, using the argument that anthropology is “secular” is an attempt to disparage a field by using a term that is emotionally disruptive to many Christians. It is akin to someone who says, “_______________ is (Good/Bad) because it is (Liberal/Conservative/Communist/Fascist/Etc.)

Now I need to step back a minute. I seem to be giving the impression that I think the article was a bad article. Actually, I have no idea. I ended up not reading it. I took a bit of offense to the language and emotional argument. I did not wish to review it. Mostly, if I read it, I may be tempted to review it. If I review it I might be tempted to disparage it. Or course, I might find the article valuable. I am simply not giving it a chance.

I think that is the point. Academic articles are not written dispassionately because dispassionate is better, or that the readers are dispassionate. Rather, readers are highly emotional people, invested in their own prejudices. This is, frankly, by divine design. God is passionate and invested as well. The writer, if he or she wants to influence the reader but keep them reading without shutting down, must find a way in the writing to do this. Ideally the researcher would write in such a way as to show deep respect for the reader. That is hard to do through a media as cold as black text on white background. Thus, the best they can do generally is write neutrally, dispassionately.

In my dissertation, I offended one of my readers greatly in the way I wrote. The reader said that someone involved in the researcher must be horribly offended at something I wrote. I was pretty sure that wasn’t the case since that particular individual was intimately involved in (and agreed with) the exact section of the paper the reviewer was referring to. Nevertheless, as the years went by, I do realize that when I wrote my dissertation, I was a bit hot-headed. I was trying to be a bit of a trailblazer pushing qualitative analysis at a school that was almost entirely focused on quantitative analysis. That hot-headedness showed itself a bit subtly mostly— being overly defensive, polemic and argumentative, in such things as not using hypotheses, or recognizing the researcher as the main instrument rather than the list of questions for the semi-structured interviews.

Being dispassionate in research writing is not about embracing a relic of the Enlightenment, but understanding that we are emotional beings. We fake being dispassionate in writing so that others can fake being dispassionate, and read it without being triggered into too much pushback.

One of my professors had the joking statement that “Professors have many degrees but little temperature.”

It is funny, but I don’t believe it.

The final step of localizing a video game for a new market is Quality Control. The steps of Internationalization and Localization are meant to make a game that feels natural in a new market. I noted in the last post, the goal is not to make the game feel local, but rather to make the player feel like a local within the game. The game should feel comfortable and immersive to the players in the new market but still have the plot, characters, and objectives of the original game so that people all over the world can “feel” as if they are united as players of the same game.

But there will be mistakes. No work is ever done without mistakes, oversights, and more. In some cases, it may have been done right, but could be done better. My daughter showed me a well-known error in video game localization. In the orginal, Japanese, version of a game (I think it was one of the Pokemon games but I could be wrong), a character buys a rice ball, and then begins talking about how much he enjoys eating rice balls (I don’t remember the Japanese name). Here in the Philippines, there are many possible equivalents— Puto or Buchi come to mine. No problem. But in the American version, rice ball is traded for jelly doughnut. On first consideration this seems like a perfectly good localization. Jelly doughnuts are a nice hand-held sweet treat. It arguably could have worked. But there were a couple of problems— one obvious and one far more subtle. On the obvious side, the picture did not match up. The imagery was part of the game that was held constant in internationalization. It was not changing in localization. While the image did not clearly identify what the food was, it looked quite a bit like a rice ball, and not at all like a jelly doughnut. That pulls one out of the immersiveness in the game. The words don’t line up with the visuals.

A far more subtle problem was in that the change was unnecessary. As I said, localization does not mean making the story look like it is happening in the new culture (such as making a game that takes place in Medieval France, now take place in 21st century Chicago). Rather, localization means making the game so that a person from Chicago will feel as comfortable there in the game world as someone from France, Brazil, or China. So turning a rice ball into a jelly doughnut is sort of like changing the visiting of the Great Wall of China to visiting the Grand Canyon in the game… or turning all of the sushi bars into taco stands. It is an unnecessary change and looks like the localizers don’t really understand what is important for the gameplayers. It is a bit akin to a foreign preacher coming to the Philippines and constantly bringing up famous Filipinos (Manny Pacquio, Pres. Duterte, Vice Ganda, Sharon Cuneta, etc.) or cultural artifacts (balut, adobo, bahay kubo, barong tagalog, etc) in a fruitless attempt to make the sermon “feel local.” IF THE MESSAGE IS NOT DRAWN FROM GOD’S WORD, AND DOES NOT DIRECTLY SPEAK TO THE FEARS AND HOPES OF THE AUDIENCE, IT WILL NEVER BE TRULY LOCALIZED.

In video game localization, quality control is done a number of ways (far above my knowledge) but most famously through lots and lots of gameplay. Just as the saying, “The proof of the pudding is in the tasting,” the proof of the localization is in the playing— by locals.

And this brings up the issue of role. Who does the steps.

  1. Internationalization. Much of this really must be done by the programmers in the home country. They have the code. They know the game. However, it may help to have consultation from outside. Ethnocentrism and mono-perspectivity of the programmers and gaming company can make it so that they don’t have a clear understanding of what aspects of their game are universal, and what things are culturally distinctive. So dialogue with those from other cultures (especially of potential markets is useful). If we say that the initial game market is “A” or “a,” and the future market in a different culture is “B” or “b,” then at Internationalization, the Dialogue/Partnership could be described as “Ab”— the home culture dominates this process, but needs inputs from the potential new market.
  2. Localization. Localization is best done by those from the market culture “B” who are already comfortable with original culture “A.” They should then be bicultural in a sense, but fully immersed and enculturated or acculturated in culture “B.” However, those from culture “A” have a role. After all, part of their role is to help the localizers really understand the lore, characterization, plot, and objectives of the game. These can be subtle things. Of course, to be effective in this, those from Culture A, but also be pretty comfortable in Culture B;, to be able to communicate these subtleties effectively. Still, this Dialogue/Partnership could be described as “aB”— the local culture dominates the process, but with effective communication going on to ensure nuances are not lost in translation.
  3. Quality Control. This process would be dominated by locals of the new market. After all, they are the ones who must feel comfortable and entertained in this new version of the game. Still, the original creators of the game should be part of the process to make sure that the game still “feels” like the original game. Again, this Dialogue/Partnership could be described as “aB.”

This dialogue applies to localization as well. There is need for dialogue between the “Missionary culture” and the “Recipient culture” at each level. At the Internationalization level, outsider perspectives are needed to make sure that theology that is comfortable in “A” (Missionary Culture) is not being passed along to Culture “B” with too much of that Missionary Culture embedded in it. This can most easily happen when theology is passed on with focus on proposition rather than narrative. I noted that case previously of “The Fundamentals” where the death of Christ (and universally relevant story) is boiled down into a limited explanation (substitutionary atonement for sin) that, while true, does a disservice to the broad implications that flow from the story, as well as the wide variety of canonical statements that exist. We want our contextualized theology to be “Biblical.’ However, as Jackson Wu (in the article I referenced and linked to in my previous post) described a statement of a friend of his, there is an unconscious tendency of “We do it because it is Biblical” to become “It is Biblical because we do it.” Culture A theologians need to fight paternalistic tendencies and listen openly to the challenge of Culture B theologians.

I remember when I was attending a Baptist college where we learned Baptist doctrines and theology. In so many cases my professor would express a Baptist doctrine, point to the Scriptural and Theological basis, and it is clear, understandable, and cohesive. They would often contrast this with perspectives of some other groups that appear pretty eisegetic and convoluted. However, then there were certain topics of Baptist doctrine where the professor would suddenly shift. The argument is no longer clear and cohesive but having a muddy dance around Scripture to justify it. One of those examples was the Baptist predilection for having a single pastor in a church… rather than having several pastors or a board of elders. Even as a 19 year old I realized that this was an area where my professor had drifted into “It is Biblical because that is the way we do it.” (By the way, I don’t care whether there is one pastor, many pastors, or no pastors. But this appears to be more of a cultural issue than an issue of sound Biblical interpretation.) Without outsider perspectives, there is a tendency to keep slipping into the same ruts.

Of course, this works both ways. When one looks at Bevans work on evaluating contextual theologies (“Fair or Foul”) he notes a few things relevant to this post. For one, the theology should come from the users. It should not come from an outsider or a single prophetic figure. Ideally, it should come from the community of faith. In the way I am describing it, the localization process is driven by locals. It may not be “from the masses” but it would come from a group within the church culture. A second thing is that the localized theology should challenge and be willing to be challenged by outsiders. Much like in video games, there needs to be challenging dialogue from both sides. A third thing is that it should be understandable and utilized by the populace. In other words, it should not be narrow and esoteric. If it is localized, it should be felt as if at home in the church and the church in it. This is in line with video game localization where the tests are Quality Control where it is evaluated by actual use, and by sales (its use and acceptance by the general gamer population).

I think I have dealt with this topic enough. But I do think that the process of video game localization has value in the localizing of theology. Among these values are:

  1. Recognition that one must identify aspects of theology that must be embraced as universal… in that removing it would its universality across cultures.
  2. See that the distinctive “DNA” of a theology is found more in its characters, plot, and objectives. Propositional statements are more likely to be developed from the stories to give answers to needs that are based in church history or church locality. As such, the Biblical story should be held constant as well as key characters and objectives in the story. These should not be localized by being changed, but presented so that people in different cultures can feel at home in that outsider story.
  3. Theology needs to be evaluated as a two-way street… developed dialogically and challenged dialogically. Its successful localization is determined to the extent that it is successfully used and understood by Christians in that culture.
  4. The church, living out its theology, should look different in different settings. However, it should feel as if it is a common faith worshiping a common God— Savior and Lord.

Internationalization and Localization of Theology— Part 2

A critical step for converting video games to new culture/market is Internationalization. On initial consideration, it seems as if this is unnecessary. Why would one need to “internationalize” so as to ‘localize.” However, this step is needed unliess one wants to make the localization process incredibly distressing.

I must note that I am not a programmer (the only two languages I have ever programmed in are FORTRAN and Commodore-BASIC— pretty old-timey). However, there is a certain logic here. A game has storyline/plot, objectives, characters, language, scenery/scenes, mapping, and so forth and so on. For the game to be effectively localized to a new culture (consider taking a Japanese game and making it appreciated in the United States), many key things should not change. Storyline/plot, objectives, characters, map, scenes, and so forth probably shouldn’t change, or at least they shouldn’t change much. However, some things need to change a lot. The language (narration, dialogue, audio clips, street signs and more) need to change. While characters should stay the same generally, their names may need to change (but not always). Some plot points may need to be explained or modified somewhat to make it more understandable. Music may need to change (or not). Famously, Tetris kept its Russian folk music theme song as it spread around the world, but that doesn’t work.

Changing too many key elements would undermine the game… or at least cause it to lose its “DNA.” That is, an American playing a game should feel like they are playing the same game that is played in Japan, or in Germany, or in Zimbabwe. Change too much and it is no longer “the same game.” Change too little, and the foreigness can be distracting, non-immersive, or even incomprehensible.

To internationalize, the game is structured so that the core elements are kept constant, while the culturally dependent aspects are put in separate files. Additionally, the constant aspects are configured so as to accommodate localization. For example, if there is written text… the written text should be in a file that can be changed for different markets. However, the imagery that doesn’t change needs to be configured so that different languages with different scripts will still have ample room to be read. Ultimately, a good internationalization sets things up so that localization can be done so that it is local and immersive, while maintaining the same identifiable gameplay.

In theology there needs to be a similar thing going on for localization. There needs to be a genuine attempt to identify what is core and what is non-core.

Yes. This is not easy. However, part of the difficulty is that we as Christians have never been that good at identifying core issues. One might say that we have done better at one time with the great historical creeds of the past. And perhaps this is true… but the temptation to spread it out and nitpick on things tends to cause things to get to the point it is hard to identify what is critical and what is not.


Let me try an example for you. I was raised up a Christian Fundamentalist. Christian Fundamentalism has its roots in American Protestantism. While it seeks in many ways to stand out counterculturally from the broader American society, in many ways it is a product of that same culture. I don’t generally use that term to describe myself… yet in the classic sense of the term, I feel it may still apply to me. In the classic sense of the term, there were identified certain things that were seen as fundamental faith positions. In 1910, the following were set up as Fundamentals by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church.

  • Biblical inspiration and the infallibility of scripture
  • Virgin birth of Jesus
  • Belief that Christ’s death was the atonement for sin
  • Bodily resurrection of Jesus
  • Historical reality of the miracles of Jesus

If I remember right, when I was young, we also had the Trinity (Oneness of God in Three Persons) as a Fundamental belief. Not sure why that wasn’t included. Anyway, if one adds that one, you have six.

But let’s consider a couple of the challenges of using these to provide a basis for internationalization of Theology.

  1. Temptation to keep adding to the list. As time goes on, new concerns come up. As such, some things become less relevant, while other things become more relevant,. In the list above, the Virgin birth of Jesus seems pretty out of place. After all, if one accepts the “infallibility” of Scripture, and “the Historical reality of the miracles of Jesus,” it hardly seems worth mentioning the Virgin Birth. Perhaps it could be justified on the grounds that it stands against Adoptionism— a theological view that pops up in history here and there. However, when the list was made, the “Search for the Historical Jesus” was intense. As such, many thought it needed to be specially singled out. However, as time went on, other issues pushed to the front and those led to more “fundamentals,” For example, some added that Genesis 1 must be interpreted in a very literal (seven 24-hour period sort of literal) manner. I can see how we may say that “God is Creator and Designer and Sustainer of the Heavens and the Earth” is a Fundamental issue. But the question of “literalness” seems to be an argument over genre… not particularly fundamental. Just today, I was reading an article by Jackson Wu regarding the reaction of some religious leaders that Saddleback Church has ordained three women. Some of the language used by Tim Keller, John Piper, and D.A. Carson who were discussing this topic showed how deeply important it was to them that women should not be pastors. The article is HERE. Some others that agree with them in spirit but who are more vitriolic in language suggested that a church that has a ordained woman is not a church at all. Since there really is an awful lot of wiggle room in Biblical interpretation in this area (without even getting into the question of culture), this seems very much like an area where “good people can disagree.” However, the upheavals in society regarding gender roles and norms in recent decades has led to a hardlining (and demonizing) of beliefs, such that it looks almost as if this is a new “fundamental,” despite lacking a good theological basis for its prominence.
  2. What may be fundamental in one culture, may not necessarily be fundamental in another culture. A good example of this is the 3rd fundamental above… “The belief that Christ’s death was the atonement for sin.” Is this true? Yes, I definitely believe it is. Is it fundamental? In a sense it is… but in a sense it isn’t. What in the world do I mean by this? Well, the Bible does teach that Jesus died for our sins. But the Bible says that Jesus died for many reasons. Perhaps the most well-known passage in the Bible (John 3:16-17) says that Jesus was sent to us because of God’s great love for us (verse 16) and so that people will believe (verse 17). Of course, one could read those verses through a substitutionary atonement lens (God loved the world so much that He sent Jesus to die as an atoning sacrifice for our sins… For God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn it but to cover the sins of those who believe). However, it could be just as reasonable to swap it around and say that God’s great desire was to show us how much He loves us, and so chose sacrifice as a way of demonstrating that love in a way that we can identify. I would argue that both statements are true, and one is not necessarily more fundamental than the other. And when one brings in Honor-Shame theology utilizing the Biblical language of Adoption, and Family of God, a whole other perspective is there that is equally fundamental. (One can find other themes in the Bible regarding Christ’s death that are also arguably fundamental.) Of course, it is hard to know where to stop on this path. Going back to the ordaining women issue, if one is bringing Christian theology into a culture that is more gender egalitarian, is it “fundamental” to undermine this and promote a patriarchal structure? Maybe… maybe not. Certainly that is what has often been done here in the Philippines— a country where women have often had more power in society than in the US (including two being President of the Philippines). Yet many churches are horrified at that thought of women taking up prominent roles in church. This has come through both Catholic and Protestant missionaries. A local pastor went to one of our student’s parents to tell them that their daughter was “going to hell” (literally?) because she committed the sin of planting a church while being female. Is this a fundamental issue… or is it a cultural one driven by social conflicts?

Instead of adding other examples… creating even more discomfort… I would like to suggest something. In internationalizing theology, we should consider a more narrative approach rather than propositional approach. I know it has been popular to identify the “kerygma,” the core essence of the Gospel. However, the attempts to do that end up in expressions that tend to focus on contemporary theological concerns in a specific setting. A list of propositional truths commonly are really a list of statements that come from the results of debates in one cultural setting.

The core is the story. The Bible is the story of God… a love story in a sense. The leading characters, narrative and objectives are key. Changing the characters… changing the narrative,.. changing the objectives… these would destroy the “DNA” for the Christian message much as doing these would destroy the unique core of a video game.

I think the 3-culture model of contextualization has value. You can look AT THIS REGARDING THIS MODEL. It seeks to filter the message coming from the Missionary Culture (Culture A) through the “Biblical Culture” (Culture B) to get something that is somewhat ‘supracultural” that can be then contextualized (localized) into the Recipient Culture (Culture C). However, the question doesn’t go away. What is the core… what is supracultural? Charles Hodge felt, back in the 1800s, that slavery could not be seen as wrong in the sight of God because the Bible allowed it in the cultures in which it was written. Is that good theology? Does God allowing a certain practice to be done in a culture separated from ours by 2 to 3 millenia take precedence over God’s actions, and guidance to us as Christians? In the Biblical narrative, the Christian message is one of moving mankind from bondage to freedom. I would argue that it is this narrative that is at the heart of the Christian message— more “fundamental” to the core, the essence, the DNA of the Christian faith.

Will there be mistakes in this effort? Of course. MANY MANY MANY. But that is why there is dialogue in the process. In the next post (hopefully) I will suggest the roles in this process in the next installment.

Cultural Patterns and Social Motivators

Robert and Christopher Strauss in their book, “Four Overarching Patterns of Culture: A Look at Common Behavior” speaks of four “Cultural Patterns.” These are:

  • Justice
  • Honor
  • Reciprocity
  • Harmony

I find these to be useful categories for a framework. Of course, the test of categories in a framework is its usefulness, not its correctness. So if one person has a 2 category system (hot versus cold climate cultures from Sarah Lanier) and another has 10 (like the “clash of civilizations” model from Samuel Huntington) it is not a matter of who is correct, but rather which model is more useful in which setting. Of course, if a model appears to have neither clear basis in reality, nor usefulness (such as the “color races” of the Urantia Book— red, orange, blue, green, indigo…), then it is understood that such a model is discounted. Lanier’s model often does hold true, and is a useful starting point in initial contact, such as in tourism. Huntington’s model, I am not so sure about… but in theory may have value in political science.

For me, these four categories (justice, honor, reciprocity, harmony) look useful. These, however, also look a lot like another model, one by Jayson Georges et al, and promoted in It has three categories. These are cultures that center on:

  • Guilt/Innocence
  • Shame/Honor
  • Fear/Power

I claim no expertise in either model, so I am just doing some speculation here. Obviously, “Justice” in the Strauss Model lines up fairly well with “Guilt/Innocence,” much as “Honor” with “Shame/Honor.” But Fear/Power doesn’t fit at all with the Strauss model. Nothing wrong with that, but is there an underlying reason?

Looking through the materials on the Honor/Shame website, it does seem as if the Fear/Power is tacked on a bit. It feels as if it was added more for theological reasons (Christus Victus, or Power Encounter) than for sound cultural reasons. In fact, their own cultural test shows very few places on earth where Fear/Power dominates, despite the how ubiquitous animism is in much of the world. Additionally, I live in the Philippines where the 3 category model doesn’t work that well. The test on their website shows the Philippines as vacillating depending on region and age between shame/honor and guilt/innocence.

From the Strauss Four Patterns model, things work much better for the Philippines. Even though the Philippines does prefer ascribed status over achieved status (a characteristic of an Honor-focused societies. However, one of the most recognized cultural values in the Philippines is “Utang na Loob.” While it translates literally to something akin to “Debt of the heart,” it is closer to the American idea of “Implied Debt” or “Implied Obligation.” It strongly links to the common relationship of Patron-Benefactor. The patronage system and implied obligation are very much characteristics of the Reciprocity Pattern. A similar thing comes to mind for me in parts of Eastern and Southeastern Asia where Harmony is a core pattern supported by Daoist, Confucian, and Shintoist thought.

So am I saying that I think the Four Pattern model is better than the Three? Probably not. My thought at the moment is to look at the Four Pattern model as being more about cultural types, and the Three Model as more about social or cultural motivators.

Think of personality tests for a moment. Tests commonly come in two flavors— type tests and trait tests. Type tests include AB Test, MBTI, Enneagram, and more. In each of these, the test taker ultimately is put into a category along with a lot of other people. These tests are imprecise for this very reason, but are often more practical and intuitive. Trait tests are like PRF (that looks at 20 different psychogenic needs and figures out percentiles for each in the test-taker) or the Big Five (that looks at spectra for five major qualities). These tests are more precise but not as intuitive. For example, if I tell a MBTI fan that I am an ISTJ, or perhaps I share that I am a Type 5 in Enneagram, the hearer would already know a fair bit about me. On the other hand, if I say that I am 58percentile on Abasement, and 37percentile on Harmavoidance, (and then different percentiles on all of the other traits) it is hard to wrap one’s head around it.

So maybe the three items, guilt, shame, and fear, can be thought of as traits of cultures (social motivators) rather than types of cultures. Trait tests are used in cultures as well, including Lingenfelter and Mayer’s Model of Basic Values, or Erin Myer’s Culture Map.

So maybe we should see Justice, Honor, Reciprocity, and Harmony define useful types of culture, but each one have societal motivators of guilt, honor, and fear to varying degrees.

At least this is where I am at the moment. This may change. I certain welcome others; thoughts.

Problem of Polygamy in Christian Missions Practice

Teaching Cultural Anthropology as well as Interreligious Dialogue in a seminary in Southeast Asia means that several times a year the question of polygamy comes up. It comes up in terms of how to address polygamy as a Christian minister. Usually, it is in the context of dealing with Muslim families where polygamy is sometimes practiced. Of course, polygamy is pretty common here among Filipino Christians as well (Amazing how many Filipino men I have known or know of who have more than one family simultaneously). Often the concern is what to do where a man who has more than one wife comes to Christ. <Note: unless saying otherwise, when I refer to polygamy, I am referring to polygyny— one man multiple wives… since that is the most common form of polygamous families. I won’t address other versions here.>

Bibilical/Ethical Look at Polygamy

One of the challenges is that popular Christianity tends to set up an overly simple ethics. There is a tendency of seeing things as either JPW (Just plain wrong) or GAR (Good and righteous). But the Bible doesn’t really support such a simple taxonomy. A lot of behavior is in the vast expanse between these two extremes. Much of Wisdom literature in the Bible supports a far more nuanced understanding of appropriate behavior. The same can be said of the Book of James, as well as the Pauline and Johannine Epistles… and the teachings of Jesus. Life choices are not simply based on a set of Don’ts… and that if one avoids the Don’ts than you have done everything right.There is a lot of middle ground.

Polygamy appears to be in that strange middle ground. It is pretty clear that God’s ideal is monogamy. That ideal can be supported a number of ways:

  • God created the ideal family in an ideal world in terms of one man and one woman.(I am not suggesting that the nuclear family is ideal while the extended family is not. Presumably, the ideal nuclear family would have developed into the ideal extended family in time.)
  • God created the sexes to be born in approximately equal numbers (approximately 50/50).
  • In the New Testament, church leaders were supposed to be “one woman men.” It is pretty amazing how often people try to apply this guideline to divorce… but it is really more about character and fidelity. However, I don’t believe there is any way of avoiding the prohibition of an actively polygamous church leader. (I am completely avoiding the question of divorce here. A divorcee is not actively polygamous. That is a topic for a different day.) And since, church leaders were to be examples to their members, it is likely that church members were ideally not in polygamous families.
  • Polygamous families described in the Old Testament are shown in a fairly negative light… and the negative aspects are often tied directly to tensions caused by the polygamous relationships. Feel free to look that up yourself.

I suppose one more thing could be added. Marriage is used as a metaphor, both in the Old and New Testament for revealing God’s ideal and faithful relationship with us. A polygamous relationship kind of messes up the metaphor, in my opinion. I had a friend (actually he worked for me), who had a wife in Arkansas and a girlfriend in Virginia. One day, we were drinking cappuccino on a beach in the South of France. He looked at me and said, “You know sir, it is hard to be faithful to two women.” I think he was joking… he could be pretty funny. But it is true. Being faithful to two women is to be unfaithful to both. The founder of Islam said that a man can have more than one wife as long as he treated them equally. Some have suggested that this was his way of saying that one can only have one wife… since it is impossible to treat two wives equally. I am not sure the statement suggests such a subtle logic. But for me, the logic is pretty clear— since it is IMPOSSIBLE to treat two or more wives equally, problems are bound to happen, and so it is problematic at best, and dangerous at worst to have multiple wives.

On the other hand, there are arguments that could be made that polygamous families are allowed, or even supported in the Bible.

  • The Bible does not directly and unambiguously prohibit all polygamous families.While I believe the claim of the founders of Mormonism that God ordained, and even commanded, polygamy is clearly untrue, I will say that the Bible does recognize the legitimacy of a polygamous family.
  • A number of the patriarchs in the Old Testament were polgyamists.
  • At least in one case (Levirate marriage, Deuteronomy 25:5-10) a polygamous family appears to be directly allowed… perhaps even encouraged.

Bringing these together, it could be said that Polygamy is not absolutely forbidden… a sin that must be stopped at all cost, but rather as an undesirable social institution.

Sociological Issue

I have to admit that for me, I see having more than one wife as a form of self-abuse. Here in the Philippines, many men who travel will maintain separate families. The juggling of responsibilities— and the economic drain— seems exhausting to me. Having these families in the same household seems likely to reduce some of the economic burden and secrecy burden, but greatly increase other problems from relational dynamics. Why create the extra drama?

And it is not just the men who can suffer. I have known some women who had been second wives in a polygamous family. The tensions in that setting eventually drove them away from that setting, as well as the religion that allowed or even encouraged that system.

But if it served no sociological needs, it would die out. Actually, in many parts of the world it has died out as a formal institution.There does, however, appear to be sociological reasons for its perpetuity.

With the problems with polygamy found in the Old Testament as well as today, why would it ever be done? First, Polygamy can be seen as a measure of status (for the man, and potentially as well for the first wife). I have known Muslim men express sadness that they lacked the economic position to afford to have a second wife. I wish I had asked them clarification on this. Did they want to have more money so as to have a second wife, or have the status that is associated with having a second wife? However, when biology ensures that there are approximately equal numbers of men and women, there is a true sense of “zero sum” game, where men gain status through taking away eligible women from men lacking status. This causes problems in many places (the FLDS is an excellent case study in this).

A second possibility is to compensate for a shortage of men. In some settings there is a larger number of women than men due to fighting… so polygamous families compensates for this. During the time of the OT Patriarchs, the common governance was associated with bands, clans, and tribes. In these settings, laws are more informal… blood feuds, and warring clashes are more common. In such a setting, polygamy may meet a genuine social need.

A third possibility is where clan structure and relationships are considered important enough to maintain. The Levirate marriage in Deuteronomy, seeking to ensure the maintaining of a family name and inheritance, or Sororate marriages in some other cultures. are examples of this.

A fourth argument I have heard is one I heard from a Muslim scholar. He stated that multiple marriages are better than prostitution or adultery. In other words, guys are going to commit adultery, so one may as well legitimize such relationships. (I will not address the Shiite “4-hour” marriages.) I struggle with that logic. If something is a bad idea, pointing out something that MIGHT be worse is weak at best. Further, that logic could also be used to justify polyandrous families— something that Islam rejects, I believe.

Bringing These Together

So is polygamy inherently a sin? I think the answer is NO. Does it mean that it is okay? I think the answer is NO. I think polygamy is a SYMPTOM of sin. It can be a societal sin like clan warfare. It can be a cultural sin like dubious basis for status (much like having a vacation home and 3SUVs may be a poor basis for status in some other cultures). It can be a personal sin, like trying to legitimize lust.

I believe that looking at polygamy as a symptom of a problem, rather than inherently a sin, puts things in a better light to address it in the mission field.


The solution to a problem should not be worse than the problem itself. On an individual basis, if a man (or woman) who is part of a polygamous family comes to Christ, I don’t believe the church should seek to break up the family. I don’t believe the church should reject the family members. Breaking up a family is a serious thing. In all but the most extreme cases, it should be avoided. Not allowing Christians to join a church is also a pretty serious thing as well.

The husband, who is now a Christian needs to be a righteous man with regards to his wives and children. To drive one wife from the home with (or without) her children is certainly unrighteous. Some have suggested that fidelity is achieved by being sexually faithful to one wife, and sexually distanced from the other(s). Ultimately, that is just a different form of infidelity, Obviously, things do get complicated depending on the setting. Here in the Philippines, Christian men, as noted before, may have two separate families who don’t know each other. Only one has legal status. The man needs to find a way to be righteous and responsible with both families… but how to do that may be challenging. Complete rejection of one family should not be encouraged by the church.

The local church should accept that this is part of their past, that still holds relevance today (much like embarrassing body art from a wild past will endure in a Christian today). The church should spend less time trying to break up the family (which is a sin), and spend more time on fighting the actual sins (societal, cultural, and personal) that undergird the symptom of polygamy.

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,