the Good News Cross-Culturally
Those who are sharing the Gospel
today must keep sending it to new addresses. The recipients are
constantly changing their location and no one is forwarding the mail.
It is important that Christians
understand how culture works if they are to successfully present the
Gospel in a pluralistic society. This article explores the issue in
some depth. The reader is encouraged to consider carefully how the
elements are inter-woven, in order to communicate Christ
cross-culturally (and keep up with changes in culture in order to
remain relevant and appealing).
“The Gods Must Be Crazy”
(written and directed by South African Jamie
was a hit movie
in the 1980s.
It told the story of a Kalahari Bushman named Xixo, whose tribe had
no prior contact with the outside world. One day the pilot of a
small plane passing overhead discarded a Coca Cola bottle, which
landed near Xixo’s family. At first the bottle, perceived as a
gift from the gods, was gratefully received and put to innovative
uses in daily village life. Eventually, competition over control and
ownership (a new concept in the community) of the bottle caused
division and Xixo decided that the only remedy was to take the
“thing” to the edge of the world and return it to the
gods. (The elders concluded the gods must have been crazy to bestow
this gift on the clan in the first place.)
During his journey
members of Western civilization for the first time. One was a
scientist, another a teacher, and others still members of a militant
group fleeing after an aborted coup attempt in a neighbouring
country. As the story unfolded and the characters collided in
unusual circumstances, the film presented a fascinating and funny
interpretation of differences
in cultures. Xixo
eventually reached an escarpment where the countryside below was
obscured by a solid layer of low-lying clouds. He believed this was
the edge of the world and threw the bottle over the side before
returning home to his relieved family.
I first saw “The
Gods Must Be Crazy” on a British Airways flight from London to
New York. It was the only time I ever observed rows of suited
British businessmen laughing uproariously at an in-flight movie. The
film has a powerful sub-plot and continues to have appeal to
audiences around the world. It was recently re-released in DVD
format and had high sales. One reason for its popularity is that it
demonstrates graphically how cultural assumptions and
misunderstandings between people can lead to major differences, with
consequences that can be either amusing or disastrous for those
desire to be relevant and touch the world for Christ need to
understand the role of culture in informing what people believe, how
they build and live out their existence and how they relate to one
What is culture?
Culture is the way we think, structure
society, understand the world around us, interpret events, establish
relationships, determine mores (norms for behaviour), provide and use
shelter and act (eg dance, eat, dress, marry, work). Culture is not
isolated. it is shared with other people.
Culture unifies individuals through common experiences. People
generally learn culture by growing up in a society, through language,
watching and imitating others. This is known as “enculturation”.
Every society has a culture, reflected
in its art, literature, music, beliefs, customs, institutions,
inventions, language, technology, and values. “Popular”
culture includes arts and entertainment expressed via such media as
television, radio, sound recordings, advertising, sports, hobbies,
fads, and fashions. Culture is also demonstrated symbiologically, by
the use of religious symbols, national emblems, war stories, slogans
Multiculturalism (as a policy of
government) recognizes that distinct cultures can be collocated. It
encourages diversity where this is the case. Multiculturalism works
best in a society with different ethnic groups and a political system
that promotes freedom of expression and awareness of differences.
Ethnic groups bring variety and richness by introducing exogenous
(external) ideas and customs. However, ethnic groups that keep their
values and traditions can also threaten national unity. Many people
feel confused and uneasy when they deal with people of “other”
“Ethnocentrism” is an
attitude that one's culture is central, that it is the best. It
contributes to nationalistic militarism (remember the stories of
“ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the early 1990s). The
opposite view is “cultural relativism”, which contends
that no culture should be judged by the standards of others. This
approach can be carried to extremes, such as promoting universal
morality (or amorality) and rules that allow infanticide, genocide,
cannibalism and torture.
Cultural can be local or national.
Australian culture has been influenced by: the original inhabitants
(as reflected in many place names); the settlement experience
(convicts and free settlers); shared ancestries; common experiences
in war and sport; national values (egalitarianism, “fairness”,
mateship); religious values (particularly our “Judeo-Christian
heritage”); and economic views.
Culture and religious expression
Religion has been a supreme source of
inspiration in the arts. Some of the most beautiful buildings in the
world are houses of worship. A lot of the greatest music is
religious. Religious stories have provided countless subjects for
paintings, sculptures, literature, dance, and films. The Christian
music industry is an under-reported multi-billion dollar sector in
every major Western economy.
Many people follow specific religions
because of heritage, tribe, or family. Judaism and Christianity have
been major influences in the formation of Western culture. The
cultures of Asia have been shaped by Buddhism, Confucianism,
Hinduism, Shintoism, and Daoism. Most extant religions have been
influenced by older ones.
Rituals commemorate historical events.
The Jewish Passover ritual recalls the meal the Israelites ate
before their departure from slavery in Egypt. Christian celebrations
of Communion (an echo of the Passover) are related to the last meal
that Jesus shared with His disciples before His death. Hindu rituals
reflect ancient stories. Rituals mark important life events, such as
ceremonies making sacred events out of birth, marriage and death.
Rites of passage (from one stage of life to another, such as puberty)
serve to transition young people into the religion and society. In
Judaism, circumcision is performed on baby boys. Some Christians
“baptize” babies soon after birth; others baptize only
teenagers or adults. Traditional Aboriginal circumcision signalled
passage to manhood.
Many cultures are “closed”,
not allowing outsiders into the group, even through marriage, and
ostracizing those who change their religious affiliation –
unless the whole group does so. (The notion of “people
movements”, entire groups coming to Christ, has existed since
the days of the early church).
Why people fear cultural change
Culture is never static. It is
dynamic and constantly changing. Some people fear and oppose change.
One effect of change can be the substitution of a culture for
another (such as using the vernacular instead of Latin in Roman
Catholic liturgy); loss of culture (eg young Catholics not using the
rosary, or young Muslims not praying 5 times a day), incremental
culture (additions to traditional forms) through television, food
franchises and the Internet and fusion of new cultures on what
already exists, and consequent loss of value systems, through the
atrophying of language or oral traditions. Let me give an example.
Roman Catholic churches in Australia were recently reproved for using
gluten-free bread in masses (introduced to serve people with gluten
intolerance), because the change was considered by the Vatican to be
inconsistent with long-held protocols about trans-substantiation.
The changes had nothing to do with Biblical truths, but those who
feared change moved against it with ecclesiastical authority.
We need to understand the nature of
culture if we are to appreciate the nuances of religious systems and
how to reach people with the Gospel. This includes the historical
role of the caste system in Hinduism; the influence of the “land”
in defining Judaism; Islam as a total culture for those within its
fold; the role of “the Dreaming” in Aboriginal identity
and self-determination; the influence of Irish Catholicism in the
Australian Labor Party and the impact of our economic and business
priorities on editorial value in the print and electronic media.
How far are we prepared to tolerate
pluralism? People I meet tell me they are tolerant but would object
to a mosque with a 20 metre minaret being built in their street.
Others have issues working with Sikhs' wearing turbans in Government
service departments; being surrounded by people speaking another
language; being served by Muslim women wearing the hijab,
and dealing with people of other faiths who take work breaks for
prayer. Celebration of multiculturalism and positive discrimination
in favour of non-Christian traditions, at a government level has had
the effect of making evangelicalism appear grossly intolerant. It is
now considered offensive to criticize other faiths, while the radio
and print media have reduced scorn of Christianity to an art form.
Christianity is not Western
I once sat on a flight between Riyadh
(Saudi Arabia) and Dubai (United Arab Emirates) discussing
Christianity and Islam with a Muslim cleric. He spoke about
Christians and the excess of Western culture in the same breath, as
though they were the same thing. He was surprised when I told him
Anglo-Saxon Christians are a minority group in the world-wide
Christian movement and that people he observed to be living immoral
lives in the West were not true believers. I said it not to assuage
his concerns, but because it is true.
Christianity is not quintessentially
Western. It is a faith system that had its genesis in Judaism and
oriental values, language and values. Moreover, in a sense, it is
not human, because it is predicated on divine revelation. But the
moment we act as though “our” culture is the right one to
be a vehicle for saving faith and genuine worship we alienate the
rest of the world. The same thing happens when churches take sides
in political debates and alienate half the population on matters that
are not even central to the Gospel (God does not vote Labor, Liberal,
Democrat, Republican, or even Christian Democrat).
There is nothing efficacious about
Western culture. As Christians we cannot be captive to the human
environment that produced us. After all, we are born “from
above” (John 3:3-8). God is our heavenly Father and His desire
is to make us like His Son. The Holy Spirit in us, transforming our
minds, hearts and attitudes makes us more and more like Jesus, not
our cultural icons.
Improving receptivity and
In Biblical Christianity, culture is
broken down. There can be no distinction between Jews and Greeks
(Galatians 3:26-28), Americans and Sudanese, Germans and Chinese. We
belong to the family of God. The Bible describes a multiplicity of
languages, tribes, kinships and forms of worship serving Jesus Christ
in His Kingdom. These differences speak to the diversity of the
Christian community, differences that make us one, not opponents or
exclusive sects. If we cannot embrace a Christian from another
culture because they look, act, smell, dress and sing differently, we
are not acting in the spirit of Christ.
How can a Biblical Christian operate
in a pluralistic world? The answer is simple. The same way the
early church worked it out. The geo-political environment that
obtained in the first century was characterised by pantheons of gods,
hostile political systems and innumerable vested interests. Our
world is not very different. In every generation, the Holy Spirit
enables the people of God to transcend cultural differences and
proclaim that Christ died for all people, so that whoever believes in
him will not perish, but have eternal life.