“All Chinese restaurants here are fronts for prostitution.” This statement was communicated to us when we were brand new on the field. Over time we learned that it was a bit overstated. Yes, some of the Chinese restaurants were fronts for prostitution, but not all. From asking various locals we were able to learn about certain restaurants where we could enjoy some delicious Asian cuisine without indirectly supporting prostitution – and where we would also not be in danger of being perceived by locals as ourselves being customers of the wrong sort. Turns out that even in our corner of Central Asia there were Chinese small business owners who were just here to make a living by opening a restaurant (some of whom in other cities were rumored to be missionaries themselves, part of the Back to Jerusalem movement).
What had been a valid observation had become a law of cultural interpretation. “Chinese restaurants here tend to be fronts for prostitution” had become “All Chinese restaurants here are fronts, therefore never eat at one.” For us, this served as one example of a common trend among those doing cross-cultural ministry – the trend of making laws when we should instead be making theories and observations.
It’s understandable. When we enter a new context we are eager to learn the culture, the rules, the way things are, and the way we need to act. Important things are at stake, like our sanity and our testimony. We ourselves are adrift in a sea of uncertainty, navigating a foreign culture and context, desperate for something solid to hold onto, eager to make sense of this new world. So we get a piece of intel from our teammates or from a local and we absolutize it. From this day forward, I will honor the laws that all locals have lice, no locals can think abstractly, no locals are comfortable worshiping in a public church setting, etc., etc.
But there are several problems with this way of forming these kinds of laws and absolutes. The first is that every culture is diverse. Just because one local describes his people in a certain way does not mean that is an accurate representation of every demographic in the culture. My wife was once invited to play a role in a local TV commercial for a rice company. Most of our city friends said not to think twice about it, but to take it as a fun opportunity. But when we checked with one of our other believing friends from a more conservative Islamic and tribal background, he told us not to do it. “We would never ever let our women be filmed like that,” he said. “Too much opportunity for them to be objectified by others. It’s not honorable.” We decided to be cautious and to pass on the offer. We were glad after seeing the commercial as they portrayed the foreign women who later took the role as somewhat of a buffoon.
Another problem with making laws instead of interpretations has to do with our own limited understanding of our new context. Actually understanding what certain things really mean in a new culture is a marathon effort, not a sprint. We do not always have the lenses we need to see things clearly and without distortion. Once we have spent some years marinating in the values and worldview of our new culture, we will be in a better place to connect the dots. “Try not to make any judgments in your first year on the field” is a wise piece of advice I recall my mother saying. If we’re not careful, one generation of missionaries makes hasty judgments which get passed on as laws to the next generation of missionaries and then on to the next. While some things are blatantly obvious (drunkenness and wife-beating are wrong and to be immediately condemned), others are illuminated in a better light over time (he’s making sure not to touch your hand when he gives you the change, not because he thinks women are dirty, but because he wants to protect your chaste reputation in the community).
Finally, culture is not a static thing. It is living and moving, like a cloud formation that seems stable, only to have shifted a great deal the next time you glance back up at the sky. The valid “rules” a few years ago may have shifted by the time we arrive on the field – or when we come back again after a season away. They may continue to shift. The key is to have a firm grasp on our biblical principles and their range of expressions and then to have a curious and keen eye toward studying the culture. Living in a non-static human culture will bear on commands such as “outdo one another in showing honor,” “he must have a good reputation with outsiders,” “greet one another with a holy kiss,” and others (Rom 12:10, 1 Tim 3:7, 1 Thes 5:26). It is extremely important that I stand to my feet when a local man over forty enters a room. This is changing among the twenty and thirty-somethings, who are moving away from some of their elders’ formality. Rightly discerning our context is key – as is the right kind of stability and flexibility. I will always honor adoption, no matter if it is shameful in my adopted culture. I will not always kiss other men on the cheek without first discerning my context.
Entering a new culture (or reentering) is a wonderful time to make observations. Contrasts which will later fade are stark and vibrant. So let’s make abundant observations and theories. But let’s be cautious with making laws about the culture. They may prove to be valid trends. But turning a trend into a law ultimately results in decreasing our valid biblical options. And frankly, the work is hard enough that we should want all options on the table.