The Gospel’s relational cure to increasing tribalism

On our  trip through the USA this summer, I began to sense that as Africa becomes more global and cosmopolitan, my native America was growing more fractured and tribal. Stereotypically speaking, in Africa relationships almost always come first. With globalization, the circle of those relationships is rapidly expanding. Increasingly in America, ideology can trump relationship and end friendship. In my environment here in Nairobi, I can move from one  radically different cultural context to another within minutes, but those shifts pale in comparison to the whiplash I felt going from one isolated American tribe to another (e.g. moving from Christian Obama lovers to Christian Obama haters.) There were times I felt like if I dared disagree, the conversation might end instantly.

In a recent TED talk, Eli Pariser argued that  internet filters (Google, Facebook, etc.) will only accelerate that fragmentation/tribalization.

OR watch his talk on the TED page

What is the answer to this perennial human blight?

At GospelFutures, Neil Williams suggests that an inbuilt critique to tribalism is seen in the life of Jesus and the gospel story–relational tranformation–a just life (the concluding post to his a series on relational transformation.)

…What relationships are the hardest to transform? Where is relational failure most evident? An answer is suggested in Jesus’s words to his disciples, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:46-47).

…It is difficult to read and interact with the accounts of Jesus without noticing his relational integrity with and love for outsiders. [Neil lists a few examples from the Gospels.] …If there was one thing that riled up people, it was Jesus’s relationship with outsiders…So the gospel story has an inbuilt critique and challenge to exclusive clubs. The appeal is to transform these most difficult and problematic of relationships…

Neil also anticipates some objections: “Does this mean giving up our beliefs, values, and identity? And what about our theological reasons for exclusion?”

At a minimum: Make, keep, and love friends who see the world differently than you do and disagree with you–especially those who are likely to be marginalized by your tribe. It’s not easy, but it’s the Jesus thing to do.

Cultural observations on coming back to America (Myhre)

I’ve been enjoying and relating to the re-entry reflections of Jennifer Myhre on ParadoxUganda. Here is her latests.

Some things about America remain constant, only I have forgotten them somewhat in 17 years.  Friendliness, for instance.  Africans are very friendly too, of course, but in Africa relationships like all of life are spiritually/physically/emotionally integrated…

Other things about America, however, have changed.  The penchant for safety and paranoia about liability, manifested in warnings on any and every thing, has escalated.  Cereal boxes warn you that the strawberries and milk pictured on the front are not included.  Ice cream bars warn you not to consume the paper wrapping or stick.  Really.  Again at the beach, a warning sign, that in case of an earthquake a tsunami could occur so one should move AWAY from the ocean towards higher ground.  As if no one would have otherwise known which direction to go.  There must be tens of thousands of these signs on the coast.  Last week I read about a woman suing google maps because she took a route that indicated crossing a road, and was hit by a car, and felt that google should have warned her.  I am not making this up.

All of this strikes us more as we come from a place of few rules and the assumption that risk is part of life.  Of course it means…keep reading.

5 books that helped shape how I read the Bible

I’ve been tagged by Karyn Traphagen with a book meme:

Name 5 books or scholars that had the most immediate and lasting influence on how you read the Bible. [Ken Brown has collected responses.]

I’m going to come at it a little differently than some. These books are more representations of communities and experiences that have shaped my reading of Scripture.  As you can see, some do not directly address how I read the Bible per se, but they had a radical impact on my hermeneutics in a contextual kind of way.

  1. Peter Enns – Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament along with classes by Doug Green and Mike Kelly at Westminster (also Kenton Sparks – God’s Words in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship.—though more recent (2008), he gets at many of the same issues.) I guess half of you will disown me at this point; sorry.  These same Old Testament professors helped me appreciate a redemptive-historical approach to the entire biblical canon–the whole Bible as God’s story of redemption.
  2. NT Wright – The New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God . (Also his most recent books, but the starting point was his article on How Can the Bible be Authoritative (or pdf)—the 5th Act elaborated more in his recent book on Scripture The Last Word).
  3. Michael Emerson and Christian Smith– Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the problem of Race in America (in conjunction with other books on ethnicity & race)  helped me see how a lot of “biblical interpretation” is driven by our sub-cultures and desires to preserve certain comforts and privileges. Social environment plays a huge role in our hermeneutical stance and which texts we choose to listen to or to ignore.
  4. Kwame Bediako – Theology and Identity : The Impact of Culture upon Christian Thought in the Second Century and in Modern Africa.
  5. Laurenti Magesa – African Religion: The Moral Traditions of the Abundant Life provides some African religious context as a worldview setting for reading and inculturating the Bible). Provides the bookend with #1 in the dialogue between cultures of biblical times and Africa today into which God speaks.

[And since I always cheat on memes, a few more]:

  1. Walter Wink – Naming the Power series (helped me piece together together my biblical, American, and African misunderstandings of the spirit world in a somewhat unusual way—more on that some time in the future.)
  2. Anything demonstrating the more Jewish orientation of Acts (Tiede, Jervell, etc.)
  3. Sperber and Wilson – Relevance: Communication and Cognition – This book actually does a very poor job of communicating or achieving “relevance”, but the ideas that emerge out of it are important for hermeneutics and communication. (Ernest Gutt makes it more clear in Relevance Theory Guide to Successful Communication in Translation )

My hermeneutical journey went something like this.

  • At Wheaton College, perhaps the most significant “eye-opening” experiences were learning Greek, Hebrew, and textual criticism. It helped me begin to see the Bible as a living document in different ways than I had been raised to believe.
  • After my BA, I thought that if I could only figure out how the early church father’s interpreted the Bible, then I might be able to solve many of the disputes we have over interpretation today.
  • Then I studied the church fathers and realized they were just as confused and driven by culture as we are (Bediako’s book gets at that)—back to direct exegesis of the Biblical texts.
  • Through Trinity and Westminster, I became disillusioned with presentations of systematic or dogmatic theologies. (I have a relatively long list of books that paradoxically convinced me that their way of reading the Bible was untenable. The harder they tried, the less convinced I became.)
  • Meanwhile the African-American brothers and sisters began to open my eyes to the racist sub-culture of American Evangelicals and their limited readings of the Bible. They helped me appreciate the Exodus story (Exodus/New Exodus readings of the Bible) and the the importance God places on justice throughout the biblical narrative.
  • Peter Enns (I & I) and the other Old Testament profs at Westminster (Al Groves, Doug Green, and Mike Kelly) opened up the biblical cultural worlds and methods of interpretation during the second temple period. The key epiphany there was the christotelic (towards Christ) hermeneutic of the apostles. (They also introduced me to N.T. Wright.)
  • N.T. Wright opened my eyes to the Second Temple context and a more “Jewish”—story of Israel—reading of New Testament texts. Wright further helped reframe my worldview.
  • More recently, Laurenti Magesa helped me think of contextualizing the gospel in different African cultures, and along with Bediako helped me appreciate how understandings of African worldviews can enrich our understandings of the Gospel and our readings of the Bible.

And le voila; here I am: more confused than ever, but hopefully confused at a higher level. All in all, I have developed a far deeper respect for Scripture and how God continues to speak through it the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ to peoples of different times, places, and cultures. May God be praised!!

If they feel like doing some variation of this, I tag: Rombo Kins (who you’ll probably have to catch on Twitter); Eddie Arthur; Pastor M; David Ker; Michael Kruse; Brad Wright; the newly minted REV. Simon Cunningham; and David Bawks (who should be done with exams and student council business in a couple of weeks.)

High context societies and asking the right questions; biblical hermeneutics and cross-cultural communication in Kenya.

Most American and European interpreters come at the biblical texts with a low-context set of assumptions and ways of thinking. Unfortunately for us, the Bible was written in high-context societies.

High context societies produce sketchy and impressionistic texts, leaving much to the reader’s or hearer’s imagination. Since people believe few things have to be spelled out, few things are. This is because people have been socialized into shared ways of perceiving and acting. Hence, much can be assumed. . .

– Bruce J. Malina, "Reading Theory Perspective: Reading Luke-Acts." Pages 3-23 in The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation. Edited by Jerome H. Neyrey. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1991: page 20 citing Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture, (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976) and The Dance of Life; The Other Dimensions of Time (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1983).

Some implications:

  • Many of us (Westerners) tend to falsely read the Bible as a low context document. We look mostly for explicit prescriptions; we want the Bible to tell us point blank what we should be doing and how we should be doing it. (Chapter and verse please! Preferably from one of Paul’s de-contextualized letters.)
  • A great deal of the Bible is story—narrative. In a high context culture, you don’t need much more than that; you would get it (or at least know what you need to be wrestling with.)
  • Some of the nuances of biblical stories and speeches are likely lost to us forever—at least pre-resurrection. Sad to say, we simply don’t have access to all the important contextual clues. The few contextual clues we do have (and keep hashing over and over) might actually be minor or directly misleading; the  crucial piece of info (the one piece of data that turns the whole meaning the opposite direction) might be missing entirely.

Too pessimistic you say? Maybe knowing this can help us try to be a little more humble (less dogmatic) about our interpretations of the Bible. Maybe understanding the cultural dynamics of being low-context readers of a high-context document can encourage us to focus more on the big story—the metanarrative—rather than possibly misunderstood cultural details.

Some local examples (BTW: This is why I love doing biblical studies in the African context.)

One Wednesday a few months ago, my wife Christi and I were in town for meetings, and we realized we were not going to be home in time for lunch. Wednesday is market day, so Nina (our wonderful house helper) takes the first half of the morning off and then goes shopping for us at the market; she usually doesn’t get to our apartment till around lunch time. The crucial piece of contextual data here is that our kids 8, 5, and 3 (and Nina’s 10-year old son) walk home for lunch—their school is only about 100 meters away from our apartment.

So Christi calls Nina up, and after the perfunctory greetings, the phone conversation goes like this:

Christi: We’ve just found out that we won’t be home till mid-afternoon.

Njeri: Sawa sawa.  (Kiswahili equivalent for something like “OK.”)

That’s it! In our high context society, nothing else needed to be said. We knew that Nina would put the contextual clues together, shorten her market trip, and get lunch ready for the kids. [This is also a great example of the principles of the Relevance Theory of Communication at work (as opposed to linguistic code theories), but I’ll leave that topic for another date.] Actually, if Christi had been any more explicit saying for example, “I need you to get to our apt. a little earlier than usual to make sure lunch is ready for the kids”, I’m sure Nina would have felt slightly patronized. (No one really likes to be told what to do when they can figure it out.)

America is a low-context culture. In comparison, almost everything is explicitly spelled out, and we have lots of fine print. In high-context cultural settings, we Americans can seem pretty daft. Say what? Why are you beating around the bush? Why don’t you just tell me more directly what you are thinking? Why does everyone seem to already know what is going on?

He’s another example:

Last week,

Continue reading

Our TCK president: Obama and his team of third culture kids

. . . According to a body of sociological literature devoted to children who spend a portion of their developmental years outside their “passport country,” the classic  profile of a “TCK” is someone with a global perspective who is socially adaptable and intellectually flexible. He or she is quick to think outside the box and can appreciate and reconcile different points of view.  Beyond whatever diversity in background or appearance a TCK may bring to the party, there is a diversity of thought as well.

“Third Culture Kids” share certain emotional and psychological traits that may exert great influence in the new administration.

But TCKs can also feel rootless and detached. The great challenge for maturing Third Culture Kids is to forge a sense of personal and cultural identity from the various environments to which they been exposed. Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams of My Father, could serve as a textbook in the TCK syllabus, a classic search for self-definition, described in living color. Obama’s colleagues on the Harvard Law Review were among the first to note both his exceptional skill at mediating among competing arguments and the aloofness that made his own views hard to discern. That cool manner of seeming “above it all” is also a classic feature of the Third Culture Kid.

The TCKs’ identity struggles can be painful and difficult. The literature documents addictive behaviors, troubled marriages and fitful careers. But meeting this challenge can become a TCK’s greatest strength. Learning to take the positive pieces from a variety of experiences and create a strong sense of “This is who I am, no matter where I am” gives a steadiness when the world around is in flux or chaos”—which helps explain “no-drama Obama.”

Among those of us who study Third Culture Kids (almost always because we are TCKs), it has been both gratifying and frustrating to watch “one of us” run for the White House. We began obsessively pointing out to each other the telltale signifiers of the TCK that so often went unremarked in the mainstream press. . .

– Ruth E. Van Reken – Obama’s ‘Third Culture’ Team

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Why African Christianity is "a mile wide and an inch deep"

I bristle every time I hear someone make this statement, “African Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep.”

  1. So-called “Christianity” everywhere could be labeled shallow. I don’t think “Christianity” that happens to be located in Africa has a corner on the shallow market.
  2. Examples cited are often comparing apples and oranges – e.g. seminary students in the West to the uneducated churchgoer in Africa.
  3. The underlying assumption is that depth seems to be measured on certain intellectual articulations of “sacred” – especially Reformed – theologies. I’ll take lifestyle Christianity over intellectualized faith any day.
  4. The depth of faith I have seen in many Africans – East and West – puts any other Christianity I’ve seen to shame – especially the petty Christianity I’ve seen portrayed by so many “deep theologians” of the West.

I sometimes laugh (or cry?) when I hear Americans say that they have come here “to help strengthen the faith of the Africans.” I think to myself, “my friend, you have no idea. I hope you pay enough attention to let the African saints show you what deep faith really looks like.”

Having stated that strong caveat, I do think there is a reason Christianity hasn’t taken root to the depth that it could have. Bottom line: I think we have tried to grow the Gospel on the imported the rocks of Western and modernist cultures and have neglected the fertile soil of the African cultures. My mind was going in several directions at this point when I read Mark at Under the Baobab Tree’s review of David Smith’s Mission After Christendom by David Smith. I’ll pull out a few quotes, but you’d do well to read the whole post

. . . the modern missionary movement of the last 200 years has been very much tied to Christendom – Europe and North America – and the modernist worldview . . .

. . . Missions were from the western church to the heathen nations, who were seen as backward and in need of the religion and civilisation of the west. As such, they often went hand in hand with colonial power and ideology, sometimes with the justification that “the heathens get saved, and in return we get their natural resources”. . .

. . . The main message of the book is that when mission is strongly tied to christendom and modernism (or to any one particular culture), the message it spreads is a poor version of Christianity, . . .

The best form of Christianity:

is . . . as for the Saxons in ninth-century Europe, a mass movement toward Christianity resulted not in the abandonment of traditional culture, but in its revitalisation. . . [emphasis mine.]

. . . reflects a dynamic inculturation of the gospel among a people whose world-view is strikingly different from that of other churches . . . which simply adopted imported Western patterns of spirituality and worship. . .

. . . “We no longer want you to come and teach us the Bible. We want you to come and read the Bible together with us”. . .

The Gospel will always critique the elements of a culture that are bent away from God’s intentions and distort the image of God that humans bear. Unfortunately, many of the critiques that came in the name of the gospel were simply against things with which Westerners were either unfamiliar or uncomfortable. As a result, many of the Christianities in Africa became schizophrenic. On the one hand, we have the “church world” where we can say and sing all the right things. On the other hand, we have the rest of the world which we know to be true from our basic worldviews. Sometimes the two worlds never met.

If we truly understand the contexts of Scripture, we will see that God’s Word has always been presented in the language and images that resonate with the worldviews with which they come in contact. (Andrew Walls and Kwame Bediako show us how this was done in the ear of the early church.)

A couple clarifications:

I don’t ever want to diminish the self-sacrifice and compassion of the self-sacrificing, pioneer missionaries, but I do wish that there had been more cultural awareness and appreciation for where African cultures reflected the image of God. There are many examples of missionaries who did this brilliantly.

This is also not to deny that there are many gross distortions of the Gospel here. But the bottom line is that African cultures and many manifestations of African Christianity have a lot to offer the West when it comes to deeply rooted faith.

This is a subject I’m bound to return to many times.

Something about people who have grown up abroad; the instant connection between TCKs

Sometimes I pick out totally random things from a news article. For example:

Obama got to know Geithner “during the final weeks of the campaign,” said the senior Obama aide, and the two hit it off immediately. Like Obama, Geithner had partly grown up abroad, and this gave the two an immediate connection. It led to “an ease in conversation,” and the two discovered they “also share a common temperament,” including a calm demeanor and a curiosity about the thinking of others.

– E.J. Dionne Obama’s brain trust (Washington Post)

Obviously, these guys are in a totally different league – very different from me, but this brief description resonated with me. There’s something about growing up abroad that gives you a certain connection and shapes you  in certain ways (of course all stereotypes are problematic). I wonder if the calm demeanor might originate from trying to blend in places where you feel out of place. Those who know me well, especially Christi, know that the “calm demeanor” can be a huge facade.

The curiosity about what other’s think is definitely a part of me. I wonder if that comes from having to learn how to navigate new cultural worlds where the “rules” aren’t so obvious; you have to be curious just to figure out what’s going on; it’s a survival technique.


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