Theology and Anthropology, Part 3

I think of this part as a bit more straightforward. Cultural Anthropology is important in contextual theology.

Theologian role AConsider the above image. The Bible comes to us as divine revelation that is embedded in certain source cultures (Ancient Jewish and Hellenstic-Roman particularly). If we accept that the canon of Scripture is closed, and identify that the ancient cultures are dead– no longer existing today, we can say that the Bible from this aspect is STATIC. However, the Bible also exists as translated word within different cultures… particularly the faith communities in these cultures. Since living cultures are DYNAMIC, the Bible in this sense is DYNAMIC, not static. Linking the dynamic community of faith with static divine revelation is a theological or contextual bridge (all of this can be described as “Correlation.”). Since cultures are dynamic that means that theology (at least effective theology) is DYNAMIC… changing..

So how does cultural anthropology impact this very fluid situation?

1.  In Biblical Theology. Understanding the Bible, divine revelation embedded in source cultures, requires deep understanding of the source cultures. This is necessary to interpret the meaning of the Bible. Understanding such dead cultures utilizes archaeology (a subfield of anthropology) and cultural anthropology… among other tools.

2.  In Translation. To translate from one language to another requires linguistics… one of the traditional subfields of anthropology. But solid translation also deals with culture. The Bible must be culturally accessible and relevant to be translated well. It needs to relate to and impact the culture it is embedded in, utilizing recognizable symbols. The tools of cultural anthropology are greatly beneficial here.

3.  In Theological Contextualization. A community of faith in a culture can be indigenized (locally accessible and challenging) or it can be foreign and unfamiliar… irrelevant. The message of God needs not only to be translated well, but must be tied to a community of faith with symbols of the local culture. The community must be self-theologizing… dynamically contextualizing God’s message and character to the culture. While this may be a local activity, it may benefit from both an emic (insider) understanding and an etic (outsider) understanding. Since the key character of cultural anthropology methodology is “Participant-Observer,” bridging the gap between emic and etic, there is much that cultural anthropology can offer in contextualized theology.

4.  All Theology. We sometimes act like there is real, unchanging, systematic theology and little locally contextualized theologies. But since the source cultures of the Bible are dead, God’s message is always translated and interpreted culturally. All active theologies are contextual. Some do a good job of this… while some do a bad job. Some do contextualization explicitly… while some do it implicitly (often not knowing they do it… a bad thing). Since all theology (even more so… all GOOD theology) is contextual, cultural anthropology always has something to say in the activity of theology.

Arguably, this is a bit high-end viewing. the exact methodologies from cultural anthropology are not directly brought out here. That must be for another day. However, I would like to think that these three posts demonstrate the intimate link between cultural anthropology and theology. Such a link should not be disregarded.



Is the Bible Translatable? Part 2

This is part 2. Part 1 speaks of different views of translatability. This part looks at some practical reasons to accept the translatability of the Bible.

St. Jerome, translating the Bible into Latin

A. Since translation always happens anyway, recognizing the validity of translation helps ensure that distortion is minimized. This sounds backwards. Those who support the untranslatability of Scripture (whether it be Bible, Quran or something else) often do so with the tacit assumption that doing so removes or limits distortions. However, translation happens whether one acknowledges it or not. It happens either by skilled translaters or unskilled readers. If a person ls immersed in one culture/language and must interpret a holy writ in another language, translation still happens… but it is in the mind of the reader. The problem is that not all are equally competent of converting a less familiar language, and its associated subtlety of culture, into their own understanding. There are two ultimate choices one can make:

Translation by experts in translation versus translation by amateurs

Translation that is done and honored versus translation that is done and is disregarded

B. The Word of God is, for practical purposes, NOT the Word of God to a person who cannot understand it. When there is a language/culture gap between the Word and the recipient, the communication error is a failure of neither… unless translation is rejected and the reader is expected to do the change. I am not pulling a Neo-Orthodox inspired idea here. I am simply saying that if the message is so distorted in the mind of the reader or hearer, what they have in their mind is not God’s Word, but an untrustworthy distortion of God’s Word.

For example (considering the Quran for the moment), if a person speaks only American English, then the language and culture “limitations” of the person are a hindrance to receiving the message of the Quran. Even if the Quran is “translated” into contemporary American English, it is not considered the Quran but something else. Whose fault is it? Is it the fault of the Quran? It had no choice what language it was recited/recorded in. Is it the fault of those who are English-speaking Americans? No. It is the fault of those who won’t translate or won’t stand by their translation… yet do (effectivly) stand by the internal translation of untrained strangers.

Additionally, if a person speaks only American English then the language and culture “limitations” of the person are also a hindrance to receive the message of the Bible, IF the latest “real” Bible is AV-1611 (or perhaps one of its 18th century editings). The cultural (and language) gap between 1611 and 2014 must be overcome to understand the language. In the Philippines there are “KJV-only” churches. Many of the preachers and membership struggle with a dual language gap— mentally converting 1611 English into Filipino English and then into a Filipino heart language. There is a lot of place for error on that torturous route.

C. If the Bible is translatable, it is NOT appropriate to think of certain sacred languages or cultures. While in Islam there may be something sancrosanct in the culture and language from which the Quran was recited (or developed), with the Bible should hold no such sacred status. The Pre-exilic culture of Israel, the exilic culture of the Jews in Babylon, the post-exilic culture of Judea, and the Hellenized-Latinized culture of the Eastern Mediteranean in the first century are no more holy in culture or language than any other (although I do find some Christian groups here in the Philippines who seek to embrace a faux Hebraism because they think it is untainted by cultural distortion… not considering whether labeling a different culture as God-blessed is already a distortion of the message). God gave his message into and through those particular cultures… but the message could have come to and through any culture and have enriched it and have been enriched by it.

D. Related to the prior, if there are no sacred cultures, but find God working in several cultures… PERHAPS God is working in all cultures. And if God is working in all cultures… then translation, drawing as it does from the symbolic wealth of language and culture of a people, potentially involves taking the revelation of God and combining in a positive not destructive manner with the present work of God.

This suggests that if the Bible is translatable, we need a more dynamic view of inspiration. For Option 1A, such as the Quran, inspiration is dictation and occurring only once. For Option 1B, KJV-only, rabbinical view of the Septuagint and such, the inspiration may happen more than once but is limited and people are still likely to have a more passive role in the process. But if the Bible is God’s revelation that is being translated with reference to God’s work in a culture, then for the translated work to be still considered the Bible, the work is a divine partnership. On some level good translation involves divine partnership… a form of inspiration/illumination— a dynamic process of bringing God’s meaning out in different words.

E. Translation suggests that there is a message in the Word that is Supracultural. For example, when the 23rd Psalm describes God as my shepherd and I am one of His sheep, this is an ancient Semitic metaphor. When translated into a different culture, a different metaphor may be more understandable. Yet saying so only makes sense if one understands that language is culturally informed symbolism. Behind the symbolism is a core message. The process of translation helps us separate between the message (God as one who loves me and cares for me personally and sacrificially) and word (God as a Jewish sheepherder).

Now these points may seem strange, but I believe there are reasons, primarily in the Bible itself, for believing that God’s message is translatable. That will be in the next post,  Part 3.

…As Those Who Will Not See

There Are None So Blind As Those Who Will Not See

According to the ‘Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings’ this proverb has been traced back to 1546 (John Heywood), and resembles the Biblical verse Jeremiah 5:21 (‘Hear now this, O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not’). In 1738 it was used by Jonathan Swift in his ‘Polite Conversation’ and is first attested in the United States in the 1713 ‘Works of Thomas Chalkley’. The full saying is: ‘There are none so blind as those who will not see. The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know’

<I got this from>

I like the saying, and the reference to Jeremiah 5:21. But I do have an issue with the “full saying”:  “There are none so blind as those who will not see. The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know.” I don’t really see this as particularly accurate.

Most commonly, the problem is NOT ignoring what they “already know.” The most common problem and most unfortunate blindness is seeing ONLY what one “already knows.”

I have mentioned before Douglas Adam’s “SEP Field” from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. How does one land a big alien space ship on a planet without it causing a big ruckus? Surround it with an SEP (somebody else’s problem) field. So one actually sees it, but it does not really register with the brain because one believes that it is “somebody else’s problem.” We tend to notice things that we think are our own problems. We tend to ignore (are functionally blind to) what we believe is not our problem.

Likewise, we are often functionally blind to what challenges our deeply held beliefs. In fact, everyone does this at times. It is human nature in some ways. Our minds were created to recognize patterns and utilize these patterns to make sense of the world. When we see things that tear apart those patterns, our minds resist this by filtering out the discordant data.

This is a challenge in missions, because we are dealing with different cultures and worldviews. A worldview can be pictured as a pair of glasses. The glasses filter, distort and shade the sensory inputs of the outside world. Worldview provides the paradigm of interconnected patterns for guiding behavior and interpreting (or making sense of) reality. Worldview makes us focus clearly on images that are congruent with our worldview. However, things that don’t fit are filtered out or distorted. Ultimately, we are functionally blind to what challenges are paradigms with regard to reality.

A reason for missionaries to study cultural anthropology is not primarily to learn about endogamy versus exogamy, patrilineal vesus matrilineal systems, or bands versus tribes versus nation states. Rather, it opens a new way of seeing the world… through being a participant observer… and incarnational agent of both change and preservation.

Missionaries must be able to try different glasses on, not just the one they picked up in their home culture. A Christian missionary is still a Christian… the calling defines a certain paradigm. Yet our culture is another set of glasses that can blind us to understanding and interacting with another culture.

For me, the full version of the saying should be:

‘There are none so blind as those who will not see. The most deluded people are those who choose to only see what they already think they know’

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>

Christianity as a Subversive Entity

What role should Christianity have in the world today. Based on the title, obviously, I think the Christianity should, in part, have a strong subversive element.  Consider some options.

1.  Kingdom on Earth. Christendom. Europe and much of the Americas (obviously some other places as well) have had a history of Christianity being the dominant religion. There have been good things. A large percentage of what could be looked at technologically and sociologically as “progress” has come from these regions. However, where Christianity has become a dominant religion, people have chosen to take on the designation of Christian without actually seeking to take on the burden and calling of Christ. This problem was first witnessed back to the time of Emperor Constantine. The result is “Christians Behaving Badly.” Often we see it in moral failure, as well as abuse or disenfranchisement of minorities.

Not that Christianity is alone in this… the news in the last few weeks has been full of “Muslims Behaving Badly” in places where they have political superiority.  But Christians should never be comfortable with the knowledge that other groups are just as bad as us. If we have a higher truth and a higher example, being no worse than another group means we fail that much more.

2.  Kingdom in Heaven. Separation. Many groups deal with the world in an escapist form. Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, regardless of whether one should consider them a Christian group, are an example of this as they moved from San Francisco to Guyana and later killed themselves. Fundamentalist set up barriers to the mainstream faith around them.  Many churches in religiously hostile environments turn in on themselves. They set up walls literal and figurative to protect themselves from those on the outside. Sometimes this hostile environment is non-Christian religion, or ti can be the dominant Christian expression within the culture.  Harmavoidance certainly has its place, but that is not the center of our calling.

3.  Kingdom of God. The term Kingdom of God, to me at least, forces me back to Jesus, as He spoke much of the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven… not Kingdom in Heaven). Among the descriptions of the Kingdom of God is of yeast or a small seed. The Kingdom of God is here now, but it coexists with a hostile kingdom. We as Christians are part of one Kingdom while living in another, and are like yeast or a small seed that seems insignificant but should gradually grow and transform the environment around.

Going back to Lamin Sanneh (Yeah, I’m quoting him a lot lately)… he describes three general Christian responses to culture.

A.  Quarantine.  Maintain purity and high ethical standards isolated from the world around.

B.  Accomodation. Compromise of faith standards… showing modest intermittent  religious behavior.

C.  Prophetic Reform. Act as a small vocal call to truth and change in a hostile environment.

Obviously, these two lists line up.

-Kingdom on earth… Christendom leads to Accommodation. Christianity becomes a pale influence because the regional culture is deemed “Christian.”

-Kingdom in heaven… This leads to Quarantine. If we don’t really belong here… we seek to separate ourselves from the culture around us.

-Kingdom of God…. This leads to Prophetic Reform. If the Kingdom of God is not a place but a rulership by God… we become subversive agents within the culture around us. This subversive calling is with us regardless of the culture we are in… regardless of whether the culture is viewed as “Christian”, “Secular”, “Muslim”, “Buddhist” or any other label.

Christians should never be too comfortable with the culture they are in… nor comfortable with rejecting or damning that culture. Christians are at their best when they are neither ruling nor cowering. Christians are at their best as Elijahs, Josephs, Mordecais, Peters, and Pauls. Or to be more to the point, Christians are at their best when they are little Christs.