A Lot Like Lot

This post makes the, controversial (?), suggestion that Lot lacked cultural flexibility, and that this led to his downfall. If curious, please read on.Image result for lot in sodom

I was teaching a little seminar on Missionary Anthropology in Hong Kong a couple of days ago. I was talking about levels of acculturation— the fact that we often go through stages of adjusting ourselves to new cultures… and we never get to a place where we are comfortable with certain aspects of another culture. One of the students came up afterward and said that in an Intro to Missions class, she was taught that missionaries received a gift to acculturate to other cultures. What was my view on that?

I said that I basically agreed. And I think I can still say that after reflection.  I like to say that there are two major characteristics of a missionary:

  • Willingness (to go)
  • (cultural) Flexibility

I often note that a third characteristic of “Spirituality” is a myth. Missionaries rarely have a quality of spirituality that lines up with most Christian’s understanding of spirituality. Few are heavily pious or contemplative. And yet, it is quite narrow to limit spirituality to such things. Perhaps, it is wise to add a third characteristic that I could call:

  • Spiritual Resilience

A missionary can recognize God being with her whether being in her home culture, or far from home, whether being well-connected in a supportive community of faith, or spiritual alone— a stranger in a strange land.

Returning, for a moment, to the question above… is there a Missions Gift— a special gift to adapt to other cultures?  Maybe. Some have a gift or talent for language. (I don’t care about it being a gift versus a talent… both come from God. Worrying about which is which is a matter of labeling, not of substance.) Maybe some have a gift of cultural adaptation.

I have certainly met those who lack such flexibility— those who are culturally “brittle.” Some appear to be unable to see things through any other filter than their own culture. These probably should not be in Missions. Does cultural flexibility come as a gift from God? I don’t know. But I would suggest a few things.

First. Cultural flexibility does come, in part, from a personal choice. One commonly must make a conscious effort to bracket one’s natural tendency to respond via one’s cultural filter.

Second. Cultural flexibility is not an ON versus OFF thing. There is a spectrum. I have gotten stories of people on Short-term Missions who seem to have no capacity (or at least no desire) to learn ANYTHING from another culture. Every other culture “sucks” except their own. I have not met such extreme people in missions… but have found some that come close. These people get angry and frustrated very easily in other cultures. They often see people from other cultures as bigoted, dishonest, and manipulative. Since pretty much all people have those qualities, there is truth to their assessment. But more and more they attach these qualities to people of another culture. Such individuals ultimately either run back to their home culture… or wall themselves off from the culture they are in.

Third. Cultural flexibility is part of an overall process of adaptation to a culture. It continues with some aspects of a culture becoming normalized to the person, while other parts remain foreign for years and years.

Now… Let’s talk about Lot

Particularly, let’s examine Lot as a person with limited cultural flexibility. This is counter to the normal interpretation of the man. In fact, the more common view is that Lot was TOO flexible, while having too little spiritual resilience. This view may be correct… but I would like to suggest an alternative view.

Lot was described in the New Testament (II Peter 2) as a righteous man. This was also implied in Genesis 19 when God promised to save Sodom if there were 10 righteous men. This number wasn’t achieved, and yet Lot was rescued from the city regardless. Both the Old and New Testament suggest that he was righteous.

There are arguments against this. First, his choosing the nicer land for grazing rights over Abraham is seen by some as selfish. While I suppose that is somewhat true, Abraham did give him the choice, with the implication that either choice was acceptable. If Abraham offered for Lot to make a choice, but only one of the choices was moral, then Abraham would be the one at fault more than Lot.  Second, his move toward Sodom is seen metaphorically as a drift to sinfulness. This, of course, could also be true, but this involves considerable reading into the passage. Third, his lack of impact on the community he was in, as well as in his own family, can be seen as evidence of his lack of spirituality. Again this is a possibility, but there are other possibilities.

Let’s consider the possibility that Lot lacked cultural flexibility. Cultural flexibility does not mean, moral flexibility— allowing oneself to drift into sinfulness because “everyone else is doing it.” Cultural flexibility means able to be a channel of God’s light and blessing in a different culture. In essence, it is an adaptation to a culture that allows one to have impact on it while in it.

Consider II Peter 2:7-8. Here Lot is not the main issue, but is used as an example of God’s intent and ability to save the righteous from His judgment of evil. Speaking of God, it says:

He rescued Lot, a righteous man distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless 8(for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)—

The passage says that he was distressed and tormented. At first this sounds like good behavior of a righteous person. Yet, we don’t really find Jesus being described as distressed and tormented by sinful behavior around Him. He seemed more distressed by hypocrisy of “righteous” people, than the behavior of the unrighteous. Paul is described as a bit distressed by the great idolatry he saw in the Greek cities. However, the only time he seemed to be greatly distressed was against those who attempted to worship him. In Athens, a major center of idolatry, he was able to commend the Athenians in their great drive to be religious. Both Jesus and Paul (and Barnabas, and the other apostles) were able to adjust themselves to the culture they were in.

In other words, the description of Lot may not be typify the missionary ideal of spiritual resilience so much as inadequate cultural flexibility. A prophetic role in a sinful community is one of being an agent of change… while still learning to adapt to that culture.

Lot had essentially no impact on the community. This may suggest that he became as morally depraved as they were. But if that was so, why was he described as righteous and bothered intensely by the sinfulness of those around him? While moral failure may be a cause for lack of impact in a community, another reason can be cultural separation. In cultural separation, one holds onto one’s own culture too strongly without integration into the broader community. When this happens, the person is encapsulated in the community by his own culture… having an enclave that has little interaction with the broader community except as necessary.

This hypothesis finds support, I believe, in the vignette in Genesis where two angels (messengers of God) come to visit Lot, and some of the men in the community want to rape them. Lot seeks to protect the angels by offering his daughters. At first, this sounds like more on Lot’s moral depravity. But think about it for a moment. Sodom wasn’t a big city so Lot, a successful man in the community, should have the social capital and relational bonds to dissuade his neighbors. Yet he could not. This suggests that he was socially disconnected from the society within which he resided. His offering of his daughters, whether real in line with extremes of Middle East hospitality, or simply a ploy, points to a man who did not know how to interact with his neighbors. This is in line with a couple of short episodes with Abraham. Abraham, a righteous man and man of influence in his community, fell apart socially in other cultures. At the court of Abimelech and in Egypt, Abraham was so uncomfortable with the settings that he, in essence, protected himself by putting his wife at risk. There are similarities between this and what Lot did.

People who enter a new culture willingly without cultural flexibility will fail. If they lack spiritual resilience, they will fail morally. If, however, they have decent spiritual resilience, they will fail by failing to have an impact in the community. They will be culturally disconnected, distressed by the broader community, and unable to handle the social intricacies of the society. Chances are they will become a lot like Lot.

 

 

Eschewing Power

Tug of war

Okay, so I was watching this guy on TV. He was some sort of talking head type guy on Fox News. (Disclaimer… I have no idea who this guy is. I really don’t watch Fox News. I mean, I live in Asia— so why would I?)

He was telling a story about some town in West Virginia that a few decades ago was ethnically composed almost all of Caucasian Appalachian stock. He noted that now that town was predominantly Hispanic… and how the (aboriginal?) locals struggled with the new situation. He expressed it in terms of people struggling with —- CHANGE. People cannot handle fast CHANGE.

Listening to the guy, the immediate temptation would be to say that he was trying to redefine “xenophobic bigots” as “slow adapters to change” and “racism” as “traditionalism.”

Frankly, I tend to think that this was EXACTLY what he was trying to do. However, I would like to ignore that fairly obvious point, and move on to a better question—

“Why do some people struggle with demographic change?”

My case should be quite similar to people in that town in West Virginia. I was raised in a very insular community. The community when I was young was almost 100% Caucasian, and a majority came from family lines that had gone back at least three or four generations. My community was in the Allegheny foothills, a part of the broader Appalachian system. My best friend when I was young was Native American (Ojibwa), but his was one of only two families in my area that was not “White.” When my father (of Swedish American stock) married my mom (also of Swedish American stock) some in the community were not happy since he had found his wife in Jamestown, ten miles away, rather than “locally.”

That was in 1964. By the time I brought my wife, born and raised 9000 miles away, the community had changed and welcomed her. My wife and I did not marry there, but in Virginia. We had no problem in Virginia in 1993, but if we had tried back in 1964, we would not have been allowed because we were “mixing races.”

Times change. Sometimes change is good and sometimes change seems not so good. I am glad that changes came to the community I was raised in. But my new community is different indeed. I live in a city of over 300,000 people in Southeast Asia. While there are other white Americans here, most are tourists, and I know only a couple of them personally. All of my neighbors are Asian, of one form or another, and almost none of them speak English as a first language (although many speak it quite well).

So why have I been able to adapt to change, and others not. There are perhaps many reasons. For one, I was raised up with Biblical Anthropology. Although in some ways my parents were products of their place and time, they still taught me that all people are God’s creation. No ethnicity is morally superior, or closer to God. I was taught that God judges the heart, and He is much better at that than I would ever be by judging the outside appearance.

But really… I don’t think that is the big problem. I am sure some have been misinformed about God and His relationship to mankind. But I suspect that many have a very clear understanding that we stand as equals before God, and yet still struggle with demographic change and culture shock.

I suspect a lot of it has to do with power. An ethnic group or a religious group that has sort of the alpha position in a society will tend to react (individuals in concert) to any change that may threaten the power position. In some parts of the world, even putting up a religious structure that is of a minority group (a church, mosque, pagoda, temple, whatever) is seen as a challenge to that power. I lived near a community in which there was an unwritten rule that real estate agents were not to show houses in that place to people of other races. If they did, that agent would lose future business. Was that because the community was so extremely racist? Well… maybe. But seen in terms of power, having a family of a different ethnicity or religion in the community is a foothold… and thus an open door to challenging the power of the established order in the future.

This is hardly strange. Embracing power and having fear of losing that power is quite natural. However, as Rose Sayer (played by Katherine Hepburn in the classic movie “African Queen”) stated. “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put into this world to rise above.”

Christians should not thirst after such power— Ecclesiastical power, Political power, Economic power… the power to determine norms and taboos. God’s power is with you when you are part of the majority, and when you are a minority of one.

I believe Christians (not just missionaries) would be much more effective in sharing God’s love with others if they focused more on God and others than on their own grasping at earthly power.

Enculturation of Faith

Ecological model

The power of culture is the power of habit. How does this develop? Parents and other members of a community influence the next generation. One version of Bronfenbrenner’s
Human Ecological Model is shown above. The innermost circle is a child. The outermost circle can be thought of as the overall societal structure, institutions and culture the child
resides in. The greatest influences, however, are those associated with the  circle (microsystem) closest to the child.

Enculturation is the “natural” taking on of a first culture by children. Acculturation is the mostly intentional taking on of a new culture by (especially) adults. As you might guess, enculturation is easier. Enculturation of faith, likewise, is easier than acculturation of faith

A child is influenced and educated to conform to established norms within the culture through:
• Active teaching
• Modeling (passive teaching)
• Rewarding and punishing

Modeling is probably the most effective, especially by those in the circles closes to the child. I don’t suppose this should shock anyone. But it certain points out the problem of simply “letting the church teach our children about God.”

But if one looks at the diagram above, another point becomes obvious– it is the family, primarily, that acts as the transmitter, and filter, of the broader culture. As such, the family has great power in ensuring that the child effectively acclimates to the surrounding culture, while still ensuring that the worst aspects of the culture are not enculturated.

Christian Parents may seek to be Separatists or Isolationists, ensuring that the child is raised in a “godly” way, in a sheltered enclave in opposition to surrounding culture. The problem here is that God works through culture, and has always done so. Developing a child that cannot effectively function in the culture is harmful to the child and harmful in his or her calling to be salt and light in the world.

Christian Parents may, on the other hand, ignore there role of filtering culture. The parents are negligent, or simply transmit the surrounding culture to the child without godly guidance. That is to renounce their role as Christian parents.

The goal is for Christian Parents to Integrate local culture with Christian faith and teachings.

Children will see it, hear it, and absorb it– that is, if they truly see it and hear it, and experience it in the family.

 

 

 

 

Do missionaries destroy cultures?

I wrote a similar article previously. Perhaps this article here says it better.

eating.with.sinners

MissionsKenyaChristian mission work can get bad press. It’s not just the antagonists who oppose missions – the Christian church finds itself under attack from all sides, both within and without. And the missionary arm, that which extends understanding of God’s work in Jesus to others, is often the first stop for criticism. So it should come as no surprise that Christian mission is portrayed in many circles as destroying culture. But does it? And what is the best response to this kind of criticism?

Whatever else we say, a knee-jerk denial is useless and can be positively unhelpful– a deeper answer is needed. Let’s look at this on two fronts.

Firstly, the very concept of the destruction of culture. Like energy in Einsteinian physics, “culture” itself can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only change its form. Culture can be transformed, subsumed, fused with another, engulfed, enriched… but not…

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Church Acculturation in Missions

J.W. Berry (1980) described 4 modes of acculturation.

  • Assimilation.    One’s cultural identity is lost in the dominant culture
  • Integration.   One Seeks to integrate one’s cultural identity with the dominant culture.
  • Separation.    One maintains one’s unique cultural identity, rejecting the dominant culture.
  • Marginalization.    One loses important parts of own cultural identity, while having those parts inadequately replaced with parts from the dominant culture.

While these 4 options are not equally good, probably the only one that is clearly broken is the fourth one— marginalization.

Consider the Three Culture Model for Mission Communication. Missionaries (from Culture A) need to do proper exegesis/interpretation to carry the message of the Bible (set in Culture B) to recipients (in Culture C).

Acculturation can occur at all three cultural interactions.

Three Culture Model

Missionary Culture (A) can interact with Biblical Culture B via assimilation, integration, separation, or marginalization.

Biblical Culture (B) can interact with the Recipient Culture C in these 4 same ways.

Missionary Culture A can interact with the Recipient Culture (C) also in these same 4 ways.

However, Biblical culture is static since the message of God was transmitted to man in history.  The culture of the Bible does not presently exist, so it can’t be affected by present cultures (although its interpretation can be affected by the present.) The result is that the viable interactions are:

B affecting A   (Bible culture affecting Missionary culture)

B affecting C   (Bible culture affecting Recipient culture)

C affecting A   (Recipient culture affecting Missionary culture)

A affecting C   (Missionary culture affecting Recipient culture)

Suppose we focus on the Recipient Culture C as the affected culture. Then we are dealing with A affecting C  and B affecting C. It is generally (NOW) felt that culture A (culture of the missionary) should not affect culture C (culture of the recipient) if possible. Often the argument is that it should not because that is a form of cultural imperialism or diffusion. That may be true, but that is not necessarily the biggest problem.

The bigger problem is when A and B both affect C, but the recipient (C) is unable to distinguish which is which…. which comes from A and which comes from B. So another affect can be described as

(A + B) affecting C     Two affect recipients but unable to distinguish them.

It is dangerous to confuse people as to what is God’s truth, and what is the missionary’s cultural novelties.When the message of God reaches the recipient via the missionary culture, the message goes through marginalization and assimilation. Aspects of the message of God gets removed and/or replaced by the filtering process of the missionary culture. The result is that for the message of God to reach the recipient culture, some assimilation and marginalization between cultures A and C must occur. The message of God is damaged in the process.

Culture C should not be destroyed, replaced, torn, spindled, or mutilated by another culture. Acts 15 provides the model for God’s ability to transform a culture and create a church within that culture. Culture C (recipient) is not to be changed by Culture A (missionary).

This is well-known and well-documented. Here in the Philippines, marginalization and assimilation degradation of the message of God is rampant, both within “orthodox” and “heterodox” bodies. It is understandable, but not acceptable.

But consider the next possibility. Is it possible that there is also a problem of degradation of the message in the interaction between the Biblical Culture B and the Recipient Culture C?  Absolutely. The message of God was given to people in a Jewish/Greek/Roman/ Persian/Egyptian mix of cultures. The message was given within this cultural context, but the message is NOT this culture. Some Messianic movements seem to spring from the assumption that the culture of the Bible must be transplanted into recipient cultures, replacing many neutral or even positive aspects of the recipient cultures.

Not only can missionaries err by trying to bring their own culture along into the recipient culture as part of God’s message, they can also err by bringing the Biblical culture (cultural aspects that are over 2 millenia or more out of date) into the recipient culture as if it is part of God’s message as well.

This is common. We see it in the “search for the New Testament church.” We should not seek to create the New Testament (1st century) church in the 21st century. Some look to the churches of Timothy and Titus as the ideal. Some look to Corinth.  Some look to the church of Jerusalem. None of these churches are 21st century churches. We should seek to create God’s church in the 21st century. Such a church can and should be quite different from the 1st century church because the culture is so different.

We can also see it with attempts to define eating rules of ancient Israel as timeless patterns for today. We see it in attempting to define relationships between individuals and other social entities by cultural standards of the Hellenized world. The result of bringing cultures along with the Gospel tends to create marginalization and assimilation of cultures which degrades and confuses the Gospel message.

In short, bringing the message of God into a Recipient culture C needs to be done where Separation is maintained not only with the Missionary culture, but also with the Biblical culture.

Can Integration (the healthy interaction and combining of cultures) ever be healthy. Of course… and in some way it is nearly inevitable. Cultures will always change due to interaction with other cultures. But the message of God should be carried out with cultural separation. Otherwise the recipient will have difficulty knowing what is culture (and thus variable) and what is God’s message (and thus eternal).