Some thoughts on culture and communication, Part 3

<Continuation from Part 2>

Missionary Interaction with a Culture

Missionary Culture         Respondent Culture

Figure V. Gospel Communication Between Cultures

Figure V shows the most generic interaction where a missionary from one culture seeks to give a contextualized message to a second culture. If one looks at the Three Culture Model, this is essentially the upper triangle labelled “M”. the culture on the left interacts with the culture on the right via culture “B” which is the Bible Culture. Since a culture is understood in terms of the symbolic structure of a people, this works well. The message of God is transmitted to us via symbols. So the job of the missionary as a giver of God’s message is primarily in the symbolic area, not structural area. (Of course, some missionaries focus on community development and social ministry, in which case their main role would be different. I am here focusing on the prophetic role of the missionary here.) The missionary must gain understanding of the message of God through proper exegesis separating the message from the symbolic patina of the missionary’s own culture. Then contextualization must be done to relate that message to the other culture. <This is the concept of “Translation” rather than “Diffusion” as described by Lamin Sanneh.> Ideally the transfer of the missionary culture to the respondent culture should be low. Historically, such as in the 1800s, missionaries were seen as doing two major things… the first is spreading the gospel. The second is “civilizing the populace.” Doing this means that one does not simply work on the cultural/symbolic level but is interacting with the society. Today this is viewed as cultural imperialism. Since the culture is the link between the natural world and the societal structure, changing the culture is the more worthwhile goal.

Let’s look at the challenges associated with other interactions. Figure II (from Part 20 involves more of an E-1 to E-2 interaction. This might include reaching out to neighbors of a very different religion or belief system. Some people may not consider this to be cross-cultural. And yet it is, and is a big challenge. That is because it is difficult to accept two different cultures within the same system that are both blessed by God. The Book of Galatians describes Greek and Jewish culture Christians in the same community but with different cultures. People found it very difficult to accept that both can be in God’s favor. Different denominations in the same community often fight because they think that others should the same as themselves.

Figure III is the easiest and the hardest. It is the easiest because the commonality of culture, along with lack of competitive interaction, greatly reduces the challenge of contextualization. This is an E-1 interaction. It is difficult because there is the APPARENT lack of need to exegete and to contextualize. However, the problem there is that there becomes the greater assumption that the Bible culture/symbolism is the same as the culture/symbolism of their own culture. Monocultures often become unable to separate between their own cultural faith characteristics and the Gospel of God.

Figure IV describes an unstable condition, the same culture has two very different societal rules and structures. Ultimately, if one people group does not totally absorb the other, the two cultures will begin to separate or the two natural worlds will begin to separate (or both). This is a challenge and an opportunity. History shows Christians’ tendency to side with one people group while rejecting the other. In the early years, Christianity sided with the Greek world and rejected the Jewish world (and later the Arab world). In North Africa, the church sided with the Latin world and against the local society. Sometimes, Christians chose the winning team and gained apparent success from that. Other times Christians chose the losing side and have suffered for it. But if Christianity can gain a foothold in both people groups, it does not matter what changes occur in this situation. The point is, the apparent similarity of cultures of two very different groups should not lead a missionary to ignore the affect of societal differences since they will affect things in the long run.

Since culture is the lens through which a people group interact with the world around them… a unique set of symbols… it is critical that the missionary learn these symbols, as well as the symbols of God’s message to us. Hardly a new concept. But something that needs to be emphasized regularly.

Part 4 moves into Incarnational aspects of communication and ministry

Some thoughts on culture and communication, Part 2

<Continuation from Part 1>

The Cultural Game

Another popular form for looking at culture is in the form of game or play. Some people who promote this model are Johan Huizinga and Wolfhart Pannenberg. The following is not following their ideas. I am just pointing out that the analogy of culture and play is not far-fetched.

P People Group corresponds with Team
N Natural World corresponds with Field of play
C Culture corresponds with Game objectives
S Society corresponds with Rules of the game

An ideal game would look like Figure II. The Field of play and rules of the game are identical. The game objectives are opposite. That is, one team seeks to (for example) protect goal A and put the ball in goal B, while the other team seeks the opposite. Finally, the Teams are approximately evenly matched. In People Groups, this arrangement would describe two cultural groups that are part of the same overall society and the same natural world. However, the cultures are not compatible so there is a competitive state. It should be noted that this ideal situation is not very realistic. With very different cultures, there would be a tendency to have changes in both society and natural world. But one could imagine situations that approximate this situation. One can imagine two social classes in a given community… the “Haves” and the “Have Nots”. One culture seeks change while the other seeks to maintain the status quo. This is not perfect. The society and natural world would be modestly different for the two people groups even if they share the same geography.

Figure III can show a different interaction. If the same culture and society is shared (or very similar) but have very different natural world, there would be no competition. Using the game analogy, the two teams share the same objective, follow the same rules, but are playing on different fields of play. One can also imagine a Franchise Arrangement. Two different franchise locations operate the same way, with the same manual of operationg and the same objectives, but operate in different geographic markets. No competition. For people groups, it could be like people groups that are the same in every way except that they live in different areas so that there is no direct competition for resources. This can be looked at as two or more communities within a monoculture.

cultural-work-2Figure II. Ideal Game

 cultural-work-3Figure III. Franchise Model

Figure IV is the option where two groups share the same culture and natural world, but with very different societies. This is a bit hard to imagine. Take the sports analogy. Two teams operate with the same objective, and the same field of play, but with different set of rules. Imagine two teams on a basketball court. Both are trying to score in the same basket, but one is following the normal rules of basketball, while the other is generally following the rules of netball or international handball or lacrosse or something. There is going to be conflict, but the conflict is likely to be chaotic. One would also expect it to be temporary. For people groups, one might expect there to be conflict and chaos. If two people groups share the same natural environment as well as culture, and yet have very different rules and institutions, it seems unlikely that this state would last for long. One is reminded of the generally unsuccessful attempts to apply shariah law (one of its several forms) in a multi-religious setting. The shariah law is supposed to only apply to members is the Islamic faith. However, the tension of such an institution that is only binding for part of the society simply has never worked out very well. In the end, national law dominates shariah law or people try to apply shariah law universally. In more general terms, one people group could dominate and marginalize or absorb the other group, or the different societal institutions and norms would drive the two cultures apart.

cultural-work-4 Figure IV. Unstable Interaction

Consider the four Figures. These are four different interactions. The first is non-interaction. The next three show interaction on two vertices. There are other options of course… such as where there is only one shared vertex. But instead of wearing anyone out showing all of those options, one could use Figure I as the more generic case for those other options.

<Continued in Part 3>