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?”

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.

Ministry in Diversity. 2nd Edition

Finally got my book updated. Previously, I was tryingMinistry BookCover 2a to finish the book “Ministry in Diversity” quickly so that it could be used in my Cultural Anthropology class. So I was a bit… sloppy. My son helped me fix a lot of it. We got most of the problems fixed now (HOPEFULLY all of them). Also added another chapter. Chapter 17 is on Interreligious Dialogue (IRD). Additionally, I expanded my chapter on Language a bit. However, because of changing the formatting, it is now about 60 pages shorter, despite having more content. That also reduced the cost a bit. Kindle version will be up soon,

And the Fun Begins Again

Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary (www.pbts.net.ph) will start its 2017/18 academic year starting June 13th. Looking forward to it, as I will be teaching three courses I love.

  1.  I will be teaching Cultural Anthropology again. This will51TaxgU9G9L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ be for the M.Div. program. I will be using the book I wrote, “Ministry in Diversity,” as the main text book. Still trying to think about what project I want to do with that. Traditionally, I ask people to do either an ethnography or an RRA (Rapid Rural Assessment). However, we are doing some ministry work in a jail this year, and it would be an exciting exercise in sub-culture contextualization. Not sure yet.
  2. I will be teaching “Contemporary Issues in Missions.” This is a BTh course. I taught it years ago, but in more of a modular, rather than semestral, format. Additionally, the book I used back then is probably a bit long-in-the-tooth to be thought contemporary today. I may have to teach the course without a single textbook. I will probably make it more research-oriented.
  3. Celia and I, and maybe one or two more, will tag-team to teach “Clinical Pastoral Orientation.” It is a mini form of Clinical Pastoral Education, designed to fit a bit better into a semestral system. Might use our book “The Art of Pastoral Care” but not sure. It depends how many have already used the book for Intro to PC&C. This is a cross-over class in the sense that both Bachelor level and Master level students can take it.

My wife Celia will be teaching Intro to PC&C for the BTh Students. I will also be supervising theses and dissertations at Asia Baptist Graduation Theological Seminary, and thesis students at PBTS and Maranatha Graduate School.

My wife is working with Drug Surrenderers here in Baguio, and both she and I (and our team from Bukal Life Care) will be continuing to expand work in two jails here. Some people find it strange that I teach both Missions and Pastoral Care. However, I believe it is in places like jail ministry, and drug treatment, where Missions and Pastoral Care overlap quite nicely. It is also in such ministries where the argument that social ministry is not really missions is shown to be without merit.

It should be an exciting year. I am not sure whether I will be so busy that I can’t keep this blog updated, or whether the classes and ministries will inspire me to write more.

 

Theological Ducks. Part #1

Imagine that you are walking along the bank of a river. You look into the river… but you have difficulty seeing much beyond the surface. Sure, you can see the surface of the river. You can see the ripples on the surface. But below that is rather obscured. Reflections of light off of the surface obscure the view. Refraction of light as it is affected by the water and the ripples on the surface distort objects below. Finally, sediments in the water absorb light and make it murky, further making it difficult to see below the surface. To see clearly what is below the surface, one really needs to get into the water

river.Cultural River

Now, imagine that you are not looking at a river, but looking at a culture. You are an outsider to a culture. You have no problem seeing the surface of that culture. Such surface things may be what people in the culture wear, how they sound, what they eat, and so forth. However, deeper issues within the culture are hard to see and are distorted.

As an outsider, it is hard to understand their values and family systems. It is difficult to see clearly their aspirations, their fears, or their adaptive mechanisms. To really understand what is going on in the culture, one needs to immerse oneself in that culture.

<NOTE:  This is mostly from a chapter of the book that I am MOSTLY done with… “Ministry in Diversity.” The ideas here in Part 1 are to a large extent from Dr. Dan Russell, although I not totally sure where he got them from. But then I will add a final section that connects the metaphor for culture to theology. That part is not in the book.>

Returning to the river metaphor, suppose you want to jump into the river. Perhaps it is a warm day, and the cool water appears inviting. When you jump into the water, especially if the river has a cold source, there is an initial shock to your system. In part, this is because one’s body has already adapted to the air along the bank of the river. But diving in, the difference of temperature, combined with the differences in conductive and convective cooling of the flowing water startles your body. However, often in a few minutes, your body has adapted, and the water now feels comfortable… perhaps even more comfortable than being out of the water.

Imagine now that you are not jumping into a river, but “immersing” yourself in a new culture. Very often there is an immediate “shock” in the experience. You were well adapted in behavior and language to the culture you were in… but now your are disoriented. The language is different, the routines are different, the social connections are different. The disorientation associated with this is called Culture Shock.

In time, however, you, if you are like most people, will adjust. You learn the language enough for basic communication, you learn how to eat, maneuver, and deal with various social activities. You might even get to the point that you would rather stay in this new culture. The process of adapting to the new culture is called Acculturation. More on acculturation will be covered in a later chapter.

Let’s stay with the river metaphor but add animals. Which animal would understand the river best? That is, which animal would have the highest level of experience-based understanding of the characteristics of water in the river.

The first animal to consider would be a Fish. A fish should have a pretty strong understanding of the water and the river since the fish spends all of its time in that environment. While that makes sense, there are limits. A fish doesn’t have much to compare to. It has no experience of land except the mud and rocks at the bottom of the river. It has no experience of the air except the tiny amount of experience it may have at the surface of the river. There is a saying that goes, “If you want to know about water, do NOT ask a fish.” And that makes sense. A fish would have a hard time explaining water since it doesn’t have much of anything to compare it to. We tend to understand things by comparing them to other things.

The second animal to consider is a Cat. Most cats don’t really care for the water. They will swim if they they have no choice. They will drink water if they can find a quiet pool. But for the most part, cats (with the exception of tigers) generally stay away from all but the edges of rivers. Their understanding of the river is superficial. They can taste the water of the river and can see the surface of the river. They may see distorted images of fish swimming below, but not much else. Cats have a limited understanding of rivers.

The third animal to consider is a Duck. Ducks live in several environments. Ducks make their nests on land or, for some species, in trees. They often walk on land. They fly in the air. They also swim on the surface of the river. Many types of ducks also dive. They dive into the river and swim underwater to get food.

A duck has a considerable advantage over the fish and the cat. The fish may know a lot about rivers but lacks the knowledge of other environments to effectively explain the characteristics. The cat has only a superficial understanding of the river. But a duck knows the surface of the river intimately, and the environment underwater reasonably well, although less than a fish. However, its advantage over the fish is in its considerable knowledge of other environments that it can compare the river to.

Let’s bring this back to culture. Suppose we have two cultures: Culture A and Culture B. Suppose we want to know about Culture B. Who would know Culture B the best?

A fish corresponds to someone who has only lived in Culture B. He knows a lot about his own culture, but very little of other cultures. He is a Monocultural individual. As noted in a previous chapter, a person who is monocultural is limited in understanding his own culture because he lacks knowledge of other cultures for comparison. He does not know what makes his own culture different from others because he doesn’t know what is unique to his culture and what is common to all humanity. One can describe him as having an Emic perspective. Emic means that he has the perspective of an cultural insider. That perspective has both positive and negative aspects for understanding.

A cat corresponds to someone who lives in Culture A, but looks in on Culture B This is an Etic perspective, or outsider perspective. This perspective gives opportunity for comparison between cultures A and B, but the perspective is hampered by the superficiality of the understanding of Culture B.

A duck corresponds to someone from Culture A (etic perspective) who also has considerable experience in Culture B. The cross-cultural perspective involving intentional crossing of cultural bounds to learn another culture is methodologically described as participant-observation.” That means that one is actively involved in culture B (participant) but doing so as one from an outside culture (observer). The goal is that one has the understanding of diverse cultures for comparison… something lacking in a strictly emic perspective, while having a deeper understanding of the new culture… something lacking in an etic perspective.

Part 2 relates this to Theology… particularly Contextualized Theology.

Theology and Anthropology, Part 1

Theology means Study of God (at least etymologically). Anthropology means Study of Man (again, etymologically). I would like to suggest that Theology has cultural anthropology as a powerful tool (perhaps most powerful tool from the human sciences) in its development from revelation and context. The material here is a bit heavy (for me at least) but I think it suggests a healthy move away from over-reliance on historical or philosophical analysis.

“I am persuaded that historical inquiry is a useful and necessary procedure but that theological reading is the reading of the text, and not the reading of a source, which is how historians read it. Historical inquiry, while telling us many useful things, does not tell us how we are to understand the texts as texts. I am persuaded that in the search for an answer to the question of how to understand the texts as texts, the closest discipline to theology is not history at all. When I ask what external discipline is potentially most useful in theology, I come up with an answer that surprises me, and it is in a certain kind of social anthropology that bears some relationship to a kind of literary inquiry also. Why? Because I take it that Christianity, on which theology reflects, is first of all a religion. It is not a network of beliefs, it is not a system, first of all. It may be an intellectual system also, but not in the first place. Further, it is not first of all an experienced something, an experienced shape, an essence. Rather, it is first of all a complex, various, loosely held, and yet really discernible community with varying features– a religious community of which, for example, a sacred text is one feature that is typical of a religion. And the sacred text usually (and certainly in Christianity), in the tradition of interpretation within the religion, comes to focus around a sacred story. The word sacred is terribly loaded, let’s simply say it focuses around a central story, certainly in the Christian religion, in the Christian community. It is this kind of approach that I discern in looking at religion, the Christian religion, not under any high-powered comparative system, but under the aegis of the rather humdrum science, anthropology.”

–“Types of Chrisian Theology” by Hans W. Frei. Yale University Press, 1992. pgs 11-12.

Again… a bit heavy, perhaps, but let’s consider what I believe is being said. Theology is tied to sacred text and to a faith community. To develop theology requires understanding of the faith community and the understanding of the sacred text as it exists in the faith community.

  • Christianity is a religion… an area of study of cultural (social) anthropology.

  • A faith community is a culture and as such is understood anthropologically.

  • A sacred text provides meaning to a religious community and has meaning bestowed on the text by that same community. As such, understanding the text is, in part, a cultural anthropological activity.

Hans W. Frei

Often theology is seen as being assisted more by historical analysis (or philosophical/critical analysis) rather than cultural analysis. Historians like to look at a text as source material for analysis. However, understanding a text in terms utilizing the tools of the historian is fraught with problems when it comes to sacred text… such as the Bible.

The problem is that historical analysis is built on presumptions that is problematic in most religions… including Christianity. Historical analysis seeks to find meaning in past data based on the presumption of natural (and local) progression and causation. This seems fairly reasonable. But what happens when it comes to sacred texts. Consider the question of the historicity of the resurrection of Christ. Historical analysis starts from the assumption of natural occurrences and so it is ill-equipped to deal with the miraculous (unless of course the proper response is rejection). Likewise, the Bible points to an eschatological history— God working in and through history with a long-range active plan. This implies a plot to history… placing itself more in the area of literature than history. History books have authors, but the assumption of these same books is that history itself has no author. Additionally, and for similar reasons, historical analysis cannot deal with predictive prophecy, except to reject any such predictions beyond educated hunches.

If this is not obvious, consider the following: Suppose you were writing a history of the stone images on Easter Island. Suppose you did a lot of research and finally turn in your findings for peer review. Your findings were that in approximately 1325AD, a miracle happened and all of the statues suddenly appeared on the island. <NOTE: I am making no such claim… just making up an example.>  Such a viewpoint would never make it through peer review. It might make it onto the Internet or “Ancient Aliens” on television. But for historical analysis, there is a presumption that events connect through natural and local causation. One cannot deny the (highly unlikely) possibility that something amazing MIGHT have happened and the statues suddenly appeared around 1325AD. Rather, such an unlikely possibility is not considered in historical analysis.

Therefore, theology grounded on historical analysis will inevitably be pulled into a naturalistic worldview.

This is, of course, not to say that understanding sacred text is not potentially aided by historical analysis. This is particularly true of the Bible.

  • The Bible was written in history, and, in fact, over a considerable period of time historically. This is unlike the view of adherents to the Quran who believe that it existed and exists ahistorically.

  • The Bible writes about identifiable historical events over a wide range of history. This is unlike the Book of Mormon that, although written in a historical style, does not appear to link to identifiable “real” history.

  • The Bible emphasizes the relevance of history in its message. This is unlike much of the Hindu sacred texts in which history is not really seen as relevant to the message.

So historical analysis is an important tool, but not as important as the tool of cultural anthropology.

The next post will continue the thought from Frei. The third post will look at the role of context in theology and its relationship to cultural anthropology.

Why Cultural Anthropology?

This next term I will be teaching two classes. One of them is Missions History. I will be teaching that at a seminary here in the Philippines. At the same time, at a different school, I will be facilitating (hate to use the word “teaching” since it is doctoral level) a class in Cultural Anthropology.

 

A simple map of cultural theory
A simple map of cultural theory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

As I have said before, Evangelical Christians tend to be ahistorical. They do not focus on the past (at least if the past is more than a few decades old) and tend to rejct a lot of symbology. That is a shame in some ways. Part of the errors we find in Evangelical groups today often comes from a “grab a verse and wing it” theologizing. In missions, there is a tendency to hold that “doing something is always better than doing nothing.” Not true… lots of times it is better to do nothing. A bit of historical perspective can do a world of good.

 

But what about Cultural Anthropology? Why might that be useful? And why, oh why, would it be conisdered a Missions subject. Instead of being clever, I will list 8 reasons that I got from one of the classes I took in Cultural Anthrolopology. It was taught by Dr. Flint Miller, and he got these reasons more or less from Dr. Darrell Whiteman. To the best of my knowledge, he drew these loosely from Kraft, Nida, and Hiebert.

 

  1. It’s about People. Missions is people-focused. It might sound more holy to say that missions is God-focused, or Christ-focused, or even Spirit-focused. But the target is people, and much of the aim of missions is to understand people to express God’s love and message in such a way as to be understood and responded to– leading, hopefully to holistic transformation. Cultural Anthropology tries to understand people via their behavior in groups (cultural groups particularly). It would be difficult (to say the least) to understand a single person without understanding the culture they are immersed in.
  2. It deals primarily with non-Western groups. Most academic studies (in seminaries and universities) are Western-focused. Cultural Anthropology has historically been focused on non-Western cultures. In fact, it has only been in relatively recent times that the tools of cultural anthropology have been directed back to studying Western cultural groups. It helps Westerners (particularly) to lessen ethnocentrism (or cultural bias) to train in an area whose greatest insights are non-Western.
  3. It is a Behavioral Science. As valuable as systematic theology or philosophy may be, it is focused on thoughts and ideas (idealistically). Theology and philosophy tends to start from how one should think and then goes to how one should behave. But in missions, we are seeking to bring people to Christ, not impose a single culture’s answers and actions (after all, theology and philosophy have a strong subtle cultural element). But by looking to actions and artifacts, one can go backward to thoughts, feelings, and motivations of the culture. In a sense, we are attempting to “reverse engineer” their theology and philosophy. From there, a missionary is better positioned to see what parts of their culture are harmful, neutral, and beneficial.
  4. It seeks to generalize about human behavior. It helps us to understand what is common to all and what is culturally conditioned. In other words, it helps us understand what it is that makes us universally human (that part of us that is like everyone else), what makes us part of a cultural group (that part of us that is like some of us), and what makes us individuals (that part of us that makes us individually unique). God’s love and message has a universal quality that meets universal needs. Buty it also has value contextualized (adapted) to specific cultures. A failure to adapt the message to a culture can lead to “scratching where it does not itch.”
  5. It uses a research approach that is useful for cross-cultural ministry. Participant-Observation works good for cultural anthropology and it works well for missionaries. Ethnographic research and inteviewing is very instructive in how missionaries can gain useful insight into a culture.
  6. It places great importance on communication. Culture is very much tied to language, verbal communication, and non-verbal communication. Behavior itself is a very strong form of communication. Understanding culture is often critical to good communication and good communication (verbally, non-verbally, behaviorially) is necessary for effective dissemination of God’s truth. In cultural anthropology we learn that communication needs to be respondent-focused rather than communicator focused. And if it is respondent focused, then the respondent must be understood for effective communication.
  7. It distinguishes between forms and meanings. We tend to filter behavior we see through our own cultural meanings. This can be a big mistake. Westerners may feel that putting flowers on a grave of a deceased relative. The same Westerners may see people from the East have a picture of a dead relative in their house with fruits and other gifts put in front of it. The Westerner would probably consider the flowers perfectly healthy… a memorial and a demonstration of love. The same Westerner may be tempted to describe the picture and fruit as a “shrine” and the behavior of the house residents as ancestor worship. But is that the case… or is it simply a Westerner seeking to apply a Western-based interpretation to an Eastern practice? Cultural Anthropology seeks to understand actions from the people’s own worldview and ideology. This can and should reduce a lot of misunderstandings in missions interactions. Meaning is more important than form.
  8. It seeks to understand how and why cultures change. Only dead cultures don’t change. Christianity seeks to transform people and cultures. Yet it is unhealthy to destroy a culture by imposing another culture’s forms on it. It is also unhealthy to try to prevent change since change is normal and healthy in any culture. A missionary needs to learn to be both an Agent of Change and an Agent of Preservation.

 

 

Some thoughts on culture and communication, Part I

I have been dabbling with communication models (such as the 3-culture model). I thought the basic appearance could be applied to cultures and interaction of cultures. I am very open to thoughts on this.

Figure 1 shows two people groups.

P People Group
N Natural World (objective reality) associated with the people group
C Culture associated with the people group
S Society associated with the people group
culture-work-no-1                Figure I. Two People Groups

“P” stands for a people group that can be characterized by its unique real setting, unique culture, and unique society.

“N” stands for the natural or real setting of a people group. This could involve its geography, its local weather, and other aspects that we would not consider to be subjective.

“C” stands for the culture. Culture here is defined as a set of symbols that bridge the gap between human society and the natural or real world. It provides filtering and meaning to perceptions. (Although for many people, thinking of culture in terms of symbols seems odd, a number of cultural anthopologists such as Ernst Cassirer, L. A. White, and Claude Levi-Strauss, view culture in this way.)

“S” stands for the society… the social bonds in a society. To some extent one can think of society in terms of institutions and laws.

Some thoughts based on this model:

  1. The people group triangle is always changing in shape since the natural or real world is always in flux. Likewise, the natural world affects culture and society and is ultimately affected by it.

  2. Culture is the lens through which people understand/interpret the world around them. People in society affect the world around them based on the perception they have from culture. This is why the natural world (N) and culture (C) is connected by a solid line. Likewise, culture (C) is connected by a solid line with society (S).

  3. The interaction between the natural world and society is typically indirect (via culture) that is why a dotted line connects (N) and (S).
  4. I have chosen to show the line connecting the natural world (N) and culture (C) with a curved line. I would love to give some clever reason for this. However, I really want to show that the relationship between culture (C) and society (S) is different from relationship between culture (C) and the natural world (N). This is because the natural world is not so much a human construct… certainly far less than culture and society.

<Continued in Part 2>