We reformed-types can sometimes be quite skeptical about the value of studying culture(s). “Why should I study culture? I know Romans one!” This was a response I got some years back from a like-minded friend. We had the same theology, but very different orientations toward the need to learn and study culture. This division among reformed believers persists, and it’s an area where greater clarity is needed in order to serve the Church in her mission.
On a basic level, one could ask a married man if there is value in studying his wife and her unique personality. The response should be in the affirmative! Yes, knowing your wife’s unique personality is an important way to love, cherish, and care for her. Well, one way to think about culture is that it is group personality. Knowing and understanding it equips you to better love your neighbor.
But knowing culture also allows you to powerfully illustrate the truth of God’ word. Notice the orientation here, because it’s vitally important that we don’t get it backward. The truth is coming from and grounded in God’s word, not the culture. The culture is used to powerfully illustrate that truth. This is the concept behind Don Richardson’s writing about redemptive analogies, of which Peace Child is one famous example. Missionary biographies are replete with stories of breakthrough coming when a missionary was able to explain or illustrate biblical truth in a category or legend the culture already had. If you have read Bruchko, you will remember how the legend of the return of the creator God’s “banana stalk” would lead to the opportunity to be reconciled to him again – the pieces clicked when the villagers saw the layered “pages” of the banana stalk as representing the pages of the missionary’s Bible. This is also what Paul is doing in Acts 17, illustrating the truth of God’s word through the Greek poets, such as Epimenides of Crete. We ground our message in the Word of God; we illustrate that message by knowing the culture deeply.
We still have so much to learn about our Central Asian people group’s culture, but there are a few illustrations that we have found that can help when a local objects to a certain biblical idea.
If someone objects to the idea that one can bear another’s sin, I like to bring up the old tribal concept of a woman for blood. If a man kills a man from another tribe, then honor requires the victim’s tribe to kill that man or someone else from his tribe, most likely starting a blood-feud. In order to avoid this, however, the murderer’s tribe can give a bride to the victim’s tribe. When a woman from the guilty tribe marries into the victim’s tribe, the murderer is counted righteous. She has paid the price for his sin. Her life is given in exchange for his.
Or again, if a local insists that Islam refuses the concept of substitutionary atonement, I bring up the accepted Islamic tradition that someone too old or sick to go on Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca can pay for someone to go in their stead. Muslims believe that as that representative is rounding the Ka’aba seven times, the elderly person’s sin back home is being forgiven. One man is paying the sin debt another man could not pay, despite Islam’s insistence that it’s impossible for Jesus to do this on our behalf.
Sometimes locals insist that the idea of a plurality of elders/pastors would never work in their culture. They insist that only strong-man style leadership is effective in the Middle East/Central Asia. But I can bring up the old tradition of tribal elders, whom the chief was obligated to consult for important decisions. My friend may only know about domineering leaders and dictators, but if he talks to his grandpa, he will learn that yes, a plurality of leaders has deep roots in his culture.
One more example. My local friends will sometimes brag about how Islam permits them to have multiple wives. But I can bring up their proverb, that a man with two wives has a liver full of holes. I can emphasize that the wisdom of their ancestors actually agrees with the wisdom of the Bible, against the polygamy of Islam. So who are you with? The Bible and your people? Or Islam and the culture of your conquerors?
These examples show how biblical concepts (substitutionary atonement, plurality of elders, monogamy) can be taught from the word, but illustrated with the culture. It’s not that the culture ever provides perfect categories for these concepts. But the very fact that it provides categories at all means the argument that these ideas are merely foreign or illogical (and therefore to be rejected) can be defeated. These preexisting categories become beachheads from which biblical teaching and content can continue to push more and more into the culture and worldview of our friends. Sometimes a category doesn’t exist and it has to built from zero. But often there is a category there – a legend, a proverb, a tradition – we just need to keep on digging. God’s common grace has left even the most fallen of cultures loaded with hidden bridges to the truth.
In sum, learning the culture never has to be seen as a threat to biblical fidelity, as long as we are grounding our message in the correct place – the Word of God – and using the culture as means of illustration and appeal.