Making Observations, Not Laws

“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.

Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash

The Upside of Reverse Culture Shock

This past week I was fielding questions from a colleague about to reenter the US for the first time after spending a significant amount of time overseas. I found my answers echoing those of the doctors when my wife was pregnant and wondering about certain symptoms. “Don’t worry, it’s normal. It’s alllll normal.” Reentry can bring with it a surprising range and intensity of emotion and thinking. The proverbial weeping in the cereal aisle really does happen. A prepared person will expect the unexpected and therefore have a place to mentally put that unusual fatigue, skepticism, or anxiety.

Yet our conversation also brought to mind one of the very good fruits of reentry, a quiet upside to reverse culture shock. This upside is the ability to see your home culture with the eyes of an outsider for a limited window of time. When entering a new culture or a foreign country, we are immediately able to recognize differences and to pick up on contrasts. This makes the first few days or weeks in a new context important as we are able to feel the differences in a strong way. Unfortunately, this ability tends to fade quickly as our senses rapidly adapt to a new normal. Thankfully, these new lenses are not only present when moving into a foreign culture, but also return when reentering our native culture and land. It’s worth paying attention to what sticks out in this temporary period when we have slightly different eyes.

For those who have read the book Out of the Silent Planet, you might remember how Dr. Ransom gets to see humans for a brief moment as the alien residents of Malacandra do. His impression of them is quite humorous. He is fascinated by these ugly, stumpy creatures until he suddenly realizes that he is actually looking at members of his own species. It had just been a while.

It’s hard to predict what will stick out on a given trip back “home.” One trip I was struck by how simultaneously friendly and sloppy in dress Americans in airports were. So many approachable people in their pajamas! Another trip I remember marveling at the amount of money and quality control that goes into basic and boring infrastructure in the US – things like bathroom stall latches and highway guardrails. So much costly quality – these bathroom stalls will last for decades! This time around we’ve been struck by how abundantly green Kentucky is in the summer, more like a jungle full of massive oaks than we had remembered. So much wonderful green space for picnics! Why is no one picnicking?

I’ve come to think of this brief initial window as a potentially enjoyable time where making observations can really pay off. Any time that we have the opportunity to see around our own blind-spots we need to seize it. Whether that’s reading old books or authors who have the rare gift of seeing through a culture even while writing from within it (as C.S. Lewis did), or whether it is pursuing dinners with internationals in our churches to hear their take on things, we are helped by these opportunities. The typically unseen suddenly become visible.

Why is it so helpful to see our home culture through new eyes? For starters, it’s hard to think clearly about what you cannot see. Many aspects of our home culture are invisible to us because that is all we have ever known. We are the fish unaware of the water in our fishbowl. But once a given aspect of culture or context is seen it is able to be assessed and compared with other contexts – and more importantly, with biblical principles. Once I can actually see the lack of fresh, cheap fruits and vegetables in the US (particularly in businesses which serve the poor), I can begin to ask why that is. Once I can see that the willingness to help strangers in trouble can be a common virtue (as it is in the US) then I can ask why it is that my Central Asian neighbors don’t share this value. What is biblical modesty? What is biblical masculinity? Should I get a dog? Many kinds of questions are helped by an exposure to diverse cultures and reentry provides a fresh opportunity to wrestle with them.

Those of us who live navigating between various human cultures have the particularly unavoidable challenge and opportunity of carving out our own unique personal culture, which tends to borrow certain emphases from the diverse cultures we have lived in while intentionally rejecting others. Like all believers, we live in the tension of pursuing a more biblical culture while we ourselves are enculturated beings, deeply affected by the unique times and contexts of our upbringing – with all their blind-spots, brokenness, and lingering glory.

When we reflect on the diversity of godly believers and faithful churches throughout the centuries, we come to find a rich tapestry of biblical cultures which have emerged from the same eternal and biblical DNA. Many tribes as it were, distinct in some ways and yet bearing an uncanny blood-resemblance. For those we are called to reach and steward, God has asked us to find our particular place in that tapestry so that we might in the right ways become all things to all men (1 Cor 9:22). Therefore, we need to have eyes that clearly see culture – both foreign and our own.

Reverse culture shock certainly comes with challenges – Watch out for the cereal aisle. Yet it also provides a unique window, one in which we can find helpful or at least interesting clarity. But it is a short window. Let’s seize it while it’s open.

Photo by Nathália Rosa on Unsplash

Those Who Leap Over the Threshold

Not unlike the Evil Eye, it appears that threshold rituals are also surprisingly ancient and widespread. When we find religious practices held in common by the ancient Assyria, tribal Melanesia, and contemporary Central Asia, that’s something worth digging into a bit. Humanity, it seems, impulsively fears the demonic entering their homes through their doorways. This fear has resulted in some common responses among the religious beliefs and traditions of the world.

Take this obscure rebuke from Zephaniah 1:9,

On that day I will punish everyone who leaps over the threshold,
and those who fill their masters house with violence.

Here’s a historical explanation of this verse: “Evil spirits were often believed in the ancient Near East to be able to enter temples and homes via windows and doors, especially if someone stepped on a threshold (cf. 1 Sam 5:5). This is perhaps why the Assyrians often buried sacred objects below their thresholds.”*

Apparently there were residents of Judah in Zephaniah’s day who were leaping over thresholds because they had been influenced by the pagan religions around them. They believed that by not stepping on the threshold of the door, they could protect the space they were entering from evil spiritual forces. This was of course syncretism which would be part of the reason for Judah’s coming judgment. Even though some might view this as a relatively harmless folk belief, here we see how seriously God takes this kind of attempt to fight the demonic by borrowing from the rituals of the pagans. Missionaries, let us take note.

As soon as I read the part about Assyrians burying sacred objects below their threshold, I was transported back to high school, when one of my Melanesian teachers shared her testimony. One of the key parts of proclaiming her faith in Jesus was her agreement to dig out and throw away the sacred ancestor stone that was buried in the dirt beneath her door frame. This stone, viewed as a spiritual necessity by her tribesmen, was buried in order to protect her house from evil spirits and the curses of enemy witch doctors. When she dug it out her family was furious and made genuine threats against her life. But by getting rid of that stone she was proclaiming that Jesus now protected her from the threats of the spiritual realm, not her sacred ancestor stone. It was a hill to die on.

How fascinating that the ancient Assyrians had the same practice of burying sacred objects below thresholds. Did these things ultimately come from the same early pagan practices that emerged sometime in the first eleven chapters of Genesis? Or did they arise independently, inspired by the demonic who seem to have a pretty similar playbook they use in the animistic/polytheistic systems that have emerged around the globe? Was all of this some kind of hijacking of what occurred at the Passover, when the lamb’s blood spread on the door posts protected God’s people from the angel of death?

Sacred objects being buried is one threshold ritual which attempts to protect against evil spirits. Another is to avoid stepping on the threshold, as was mentioned earlier in Zephaniah 1:9. If we follow the cross-reference in that passage to 1st Samuel 5:5, we learn that Dagon’s head and hands were mysteriously cut off and found on the threshold and Dagon’s torso was found lying facedown in front of the Ark of the Covenant. “This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.” Apparently YHWH, by placing these idol pieces on the threshold, was communicating in a form the Ashdodites would clearly understand. An enemy spiritual power has been here, one more powerful than your patron “god.” Not only can he can cross this threshold, he can dismember your idol and leave him on the threshold for double emphasis. The Ashdodites, rightly terrified, decide to never step on that threshold again. Why exactly they thought that would accomplish anything is unclear, but perhaps they thought it was better than doing nothing. Typical religious response.

The Islamic traditions in our part of Central Asia advocate for their own threshold rituals. But instead of burying things or not stepping on things, they focus on the goodness of the right side and the badness of the left side. This likely has links to the old idea that the right side is the side of honor, as is often picked up in biblical language and imagery. But apparently our local friends are also taught that Satan does everything with his left side. So he eats with his left hand, leads with his left side, and most importantly, enters a room with his left foot.

Therefore, for a good Muslim, you must not enter a room (especially a mosque) with your left foot first. You should be careful to enter with your right foot only. This also applies if two men are walking through a door side by side. The one on the right should be allowed to go first, leading with his right foot of course, then the man on the left can enter with his right foot. This in some way is supposed to fight evil, not unlike the way locals build staircases with one random step always higher than the others, “to stop Satan.” Seems more likely to cause missionaries severe pain in the middle of the night when the power has gone out than to do anything of consequence to Satan.

Missionaries would be wise to keep an eye out for the presence and importance of threshold rituals among our focus people groups. Some of them, like those of my Melanesian teacher, will be so serious as to warrant repudiation as an expression of true faith. Others, like those in my Central Asian context, are not quite this serious. Because they have shifted out of a serious spiritual practice and into a simple tradition or way of being polite, it’s not necessary for us to strongly emphasize our freedom to enter a room with our left foot first. Sure, we talk about it and joke around with our local believing friends, sometimes insisting that the man on the left go first because we are those who do not believe the local folk religion. But it seems to be heading in the direction of “Gesundheit” and less like digging up a sacred ancestor stone, with its accompanying death threats. Still, we need to ask more questions because these beliefs can go very deep, only reemerging in force in times of crisis and weakness. It was always when a child was very sick that Melanesian Christians were most tempted to return to the old witch doctor.

But whether we need to relieve a believer of threshold-demon fear or simply help one another better understand these fears that are out there, we can have confidence in the power of the Spirit. He is the Lord of thresholds, the one who dismembered Dagon on his own doorstep. He can keep us from spiritual harm, whether we are too afraid of the demonic or not afraid enough. The simple practices of spiritual warfare advocated in the New Testament are sufficient. Elaborate threshold rituals are not required.

No leaping over my threshold, please. Leave the burying of items to my future dog. And when you come over, feel free to enter with your left foot first.

*ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p.1309

Photo by Victoriano Izquierdo on Unsplash

A Very Common Clash of Culture

Most Western cultures tend to be time-oriented. This means they respect others by respecting their time, by prioritizing the clock. Most Eastern cultures tend to be event-oriented. This means they respect others by respecting their participation, by prioritizing their access the key parts of an event.

Both cultures value respecting others. It’s the how in respecting others that often results in a culture clash.

Think of a typical church small group in a university city. This group meets once a week for fellowship, bible study, and prayer. Let’s say our hypothetical group’s participants are made up of both Westerners and those from the global East, perhaps Indian grad students and business professionals.

All of the members of this small group have agreed to a start and end time for their meetings, 7:00-9:00 p.m., and they have consensus as to the parts of the gathering: fellowship, study, and prayer.

The evening for the group’s meeting arrives and some of the participants are on time. However, after 5-10 minutes, the Westerners feel the urge to begin the meeting. This doesn’t sit well with the Easterners, because several members of the group have not arrived yet. They feel like it would be very unloving to start the meeting without all the participants present. The Westerners for their part want to start because they feel it would be very unloving to not end on time. There are other things scheduled after the meeting, including the bed times of small children!

The meeting gets started eventually and the discussion goes longer than expected. Because it’s almost 9:00, the Westerners suggest that they skip the prayer portion of the event. After all, they want to honor everyone’s time by finishing on time and keeping their word. But the Easterners once again protest. It’s more honoring to make sure the group gets to pray together and fulfill all the key elements of this event, no matter how late it goes!

This is a classic collision of time-orientation vs. event-orientation, West vs. East.

You can see how different understandings of respect could lead to some uncomfortable disagreements in a group like this. But things could get even worse if any members of the group begin to elevate these cultural preferences to become matters of godliness. A Western brother might say that it’s more godly to manage time responsibility – redeem the time and keep your word, that’s what Christians should do, regardless of culture. An Eastern brother might differ that it’s more godly to prioritize people over schedules – love for others is how the world will know we are Jesus’ people, not by our rigidly managed schedules. And why do you let the clock cause you to neglect the great duty of prayer?

How do you get past this kind of impasse? On a practical level, it’s helpful if there are participants who can point out the cultural dynamics that are going on. Being aware of these differing cultural values of time-orientation and event-orientation help keep the conflict at an appropriate level – one of preference and not one of faithfulness. Pulling back the veil on the cultural elements at play helps to defuse the conversation, as many from each respective culture simply may have never heard before that there are others who approach respecting others in these different ways. It’s helpful to frame it as more like a personality difference and less like an issue of disobedience. This can inject some grace and readiness to listen into the conversation.

It’s also key to focus on the common and biblical virtue, respecting and loving others, that both groups are pursuing. They are working for the same biblical principle, but are applying it differently. This means the conflict falls in the realm of Romans 14-type issues. “The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Rom 14:6 ESV). In Romans 14, the same biblical principle of honoring the Lord and giving him thanks can be applied either by eating or by abstaining from eating. There’s a spectrum of faithful applications of this principle. This is also true of the other issue Paul raises in this chapter, honoring certain days over others.

Some biblical principles are given along with a narrower prescribed range of biblical applications, such as the Lord’s Supper. But many, many biblical principles are given to us with a broader range of possible applications. When we assume our own personal or cultural applications are the same as the biblical principle (sometimes we even do this in the name of fighting relativity), we tend to trample on Christian liberty and fight about the wrong things. We can divide the body of Christ over silly things like food, just like Paul warns about. Instead, we can join Paul in asking, “Will you, for the sake of honoring the clock, destroy the one for whom Christ died?”

If the conflict has made it this far, recognizing the cultural clash going on and identifying how the biblical principle and possible applications relate, they still have some work to do. How should the group actually proceed given these seemingly-exclusive preferences? Context plays an important part in making a game plan at this point.

Is one group the overwhelming majority of the attendees? Then it’s likely that the small minority should, for the sake of love, shift their cultural preferences to that of the majority. Is one group more able to shift culturally, more able to see both sides of the issue? Perhaps the younger members of the group would be more able to forgo their cultural preferences whereas the older members would risk violating their consciences. If so, the younger may be called on to make that shift for the sake of the others. Perhaps there is a way that both groups can prefer one another and meet in the middle with an intentional compromise. Or, perhaps different gatherings can prioritize the culture of the respective groups. This could even become fun: “First and third week of the month, we’re meeting Western style, second and third, it’s Eastern all the way! Prepare accordingly.”

Whatever practical solution our hypothetical small group decides upon, it’s likely that they will have grown simply by getting greater clarity on these differences and by working for an intentional solution. Too often cultural conflicts occur without the participants understanding what’s actually going on. Often, the majority just continues to do things its way and the minority feels like they weren’t heard or understood. Or, these conflicts get mislabeled as black and white issues of faithfulness when they were really just grey issues of preference.

These kinds of conflicts actually represent an important opportunity for growth and love – one which can witness powerfully to an unbelieving world with its merely skin-deep diversity. If you are a Westerner, you can learn to honor your Eastern friends by prioritizing everyone’s participation and by letting go of hard start and end times as possible. Show your Eastern friends that they are more important to you than the clock is. If you’re an Easterner, you can learn to honor your Western friends by showing them you value their time and their plans. Show them that you love them by helping them keep their commitments. How can you learn how to actually do this with real people? By asking questions about these preferences and by being a good listener. Simple spiritual friendship goes an awfully long way toward overcoming cultural differences.

These are, of course, broad strokes and exceptions always exist to these patterns. Yet in an increasingly globalized world, the church would be helped to be more aware of this very common culture clash. Let us work for diverse biblical cultures within our churches where we are time-oriented and/or event-oriented with gospel intentionality.

*If you want to learn more about time-orientation vs. event-orientation, Sarah Lanier’s book, Foreign to Familiar, is a great place to start.

Photo by Mitchell Hollander on Unsplash

Learn the Culture So You Can Illustrate the Truth

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.

Photo by Jason Jarrach on Unsplash

My First Beer Was Among My Muslim Friends

Disclaimer: My hope in telling this story is not to stoke controversy. Christian freedom exists for the sake of love, not for the sake of freedom itself. The issue of alcohol is one in which many believers will come down on different sides, and that is OK. Let everyone be fully convinced in his own mind (Rom 14:5). I currently work for an organization that asks all of us to abstain from alcohol, and I do so willingly for the sake of the gospel. This story, however, tells how my first beer was among my Muslim friends, also for the sake of the gospel (and while with a different org). Theologically, I am bound by my conscience to thread the needle as I am convinced the Scriptures do: alcohol consumption can be done to the glory of God, but drunkenness is a sin. If it can be done for the sake of love and with a heart of gratitude, then it is good. If it becomes a master over us, it should be cut off. Believers, even within the same church, should have different practices based on these principles and their own consciences and struggles. My current abstention still gives me opportunity to talk about gospel love and freedom, just as my first partaking did. How exactly did having a beer lead to gospel conversation with my Muslim friends? Read on and you will see.

It was late winter/early spring in 2008. I was a few months into my gap year away from college and working in the Middle East. My friendship with *Hama, whom I met in the music shops of the bazaar, was going deeper. We had hung out a number of times, in the bazaar, in the tea houses, and in the old public bathhouse – a cultural remnant in that part of the Middle East passed down from the Turks who themselves passed it down from the Byzantines, who in turn got it from the Romans.

Hama and his circle of friends were not the kind of crowd I would have anticipated clicking with, myself a not particularly musical college kid who grew up a Baptist in Melanesia. They, on the other hand, were jaded wedding musicians. Wedding musicians, because their work consisted primarily in providing live music at local weddings, where local tradition demanded traditional melodies set to a techno beat by which the wedding guests could perform their hours of circular line dancing. Jaded, because Islam teaches that their work is unclean and forbidden. The mullahs (religious teachers) were not happy about the music itself, the way unmarried men and women held hands while dancing, and the way in which the continuation of this local culture put the people’s tradition in tension with Islam at every single wedding. Given their reputation as sinners and drinkers, the wedding musicians were regularly denounced publicly by the mullahs in their Friday sermons, while these same teachers secretly approached them after hours to find out how they could contact loose women to sleep with. Surprise, self-righteousness and a system of works salvation always breed secret sin. Hama and his friends had a front-and-center view of this. So they were jaded, jaded by Islam and the hypocrisy of its leaders and jaded by their destiny to be themselves bad Muslims just so that they could provide for their families. Yet what was to be done about it?

I initially didn’t think that Hama was very interested in spiritual things. He often railed against religious people, which left me unsure of how to share about my faith in Jesus. I had also received training that perhaps over-emphasized the need to earn the right to speak, which meant I felt I had to spend a long time demonstrating that I was different before I should verbally share the gospel. I later understood the importance of leading with the gospel in my relationships, but at this point I was struggling to know when and how to speak with Hama about Jesus, and hoping and praying for a good opening. And listening, so much listening. Hama had a lot of processing to do after having returned to his homeland a year before after six years as a refugee in the UK.

I remember the day the invitation came. Hama and his friends were going on a picnic in the mountains. They were going to bring the sunflower seeds and the fruit and the other essentials – and they wanted me to come and specifically to have a beer with them. Up to this point I had dodged this issue as most of our time was spent in contexts where tea was the beverage. And while ungodly amounts of sugar were used in the tea and it was strong, even addictive, I had been able to partake. But alcohol was a different matter. By this point I had theologically arrived at the point where I believed that alcohol was permissible for some, but I was going to play it safe. Why take the risk? Why play with fire? That was where I hoped to stay. Before actually living in the Middle East, I had always thought that a life of ministry to Muslims meant abstaining from alcohol forever for the sake of witness. And I was ready to do that. Yet as I mulled on Hama’s invitation, I started to become conflicted.

Many of the normal, working people of our city drank alcohol, in spite of being Muslims. In fact, the majority of the men that I knew were social drinkers. The only ones who seemed to religiously abstain were the mullahs and their devotees – the pharisees of the society, the whitewashed tombs, the self-righteous hypocrites. Who was I supposed to identify with? Would Jesus have a beer with the jaded wedding musicians? What am I supposed to do with the wedding at Cana and the fact that Jesus had a reputation as a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners? I committed it to prayer and chewed on it. What about my Christian friends in Melanesia whose churches make this a hard and fast line for Christians? Nevertheless, as I prayed and thought it over I felt that I should take Hama up on his invitation, that I should attempt to honor him and his friends by accepting their hospitality, even when it came to a beer, for the sake of Jesus, for the sake of love. Perhaps this could be a small way to demonstrate that they were not too far gone for God to still care about them. The savior had not come for the righteous, but for the sinners. I had become convinced that Jesus would indeed share a beer with the jaded Muslim wedding musicians.

So I went with Hama and his friends on their picnic in the mountains. I had my first beer ever while surrounded by Muslims in a country with a reputation for terrorism and Islamic extremism. Providence is not without a sense of irony. I choked it down and lamented the taste, but I didn’t regret the decision. As it turned out, beer would be the very thing that led to breakthrough in talking to Hama about Jesus.

Several weeks later I was sitting with Hama in some kind of a restaurant-bingo hall. We were eating salty chickpea soup and losing consecutive matches of bingo, when Hama held up his beer for us to look at.

“You know, the mullahs say that it’s not just the act of drinking this, it’s the substance itself that is unclean… What do you think about this? I’ve been watching the way you live, and you’re different from my friends in the UK and my friends here. You seem to be very religious, but in a different way. What do you think about alcohol being unclean?”

Here was my opening to share with Hama, the first time he had asked an open-ended question like this about my faith.

“Well, Jesus in the Injil (NT) teaches that it’s not what goes into a man that makes him unclean, it’s what comes out of him. It’s not all this external stuff like food and drink and clothing and beards that are the problem, it’s the evil desires in our hearts that come out of us in evil words and actions. True religion is about the heart, not about all these externals.”

That was it. That was all I got to share. One of Hama’s friends came and interrupted us and I didn’t have an opportunity to revisit the topic that evening. But the next time we saw each other, two weeks later, Hama leaned over to me, wearing a more serious expression than was typical for him.

“Bro, I’ve been thinking for the past two weeks about what you said that night. About true cleanness and uncleanness. I want to know – can you teach me and my family the Bible? Would you want to do that?”

I tried to keep the surprised joy and excitement in my heart from exploding onto my face.

“Sure, um, I can do that.” Play it cool, man, play it cool. When I remembered that I’m pretty bad at hiding my excitement, I made an exit to the bathroom where I could be by myself, shout for joy, and praise God. One small nugget of truth, one small idea of scripture (about alcohol no less), that’s all it took for the Holy Spirit to move in my friend’s heart.

When Hama dropped me off that night I ran inside to get him a New Testament in his language. He gladly accepted it and we agreed to discuss it the next time we met. Somehow, in the strange providence of God, He had used something I had never expected, beer, to be the breakthrough for studying the Bible with Hama. Hama later came to faith. We went on to use the presence of alcohol at mountain picnics and evening garden gatherings to be a regular springboard for evangelism with his friends. Jesus was faithful to work in Hama in the slow process of sanctification. Years later he came under conviction that alcohol had too much mastery in his life, and he gave it up entirely.

Hama now lives in another country, and I live in a different city. But I still bring up what Jesus teaches about true cleanness and uncleanness whenever the subject of alcohol comes up among my Muslim friends – many of whom are eager to learn whether I drink or not. And now that I am under an agreement and don’t drink, I still get to proclaim gospel truth to them when I explain why I don’t: If God gives us a clean heart through faith in Jesus, then all foods are clean for us, and we are free to partake or not to partake for the sake of love.

The gospel is utterly different from man-made religion. Instead of working to cleanse ourselves of sin and shame, God gives us a new heart, which transforms everything. We proclaim this message with words and we strive to model this with our actions and our choices. And that’s why my first beer was among my Muslim friends.

Photo by Eeshan Garg on Unsplash

Of Cowboys and Bedouins

Much can be learned about a culture by identifying its ideal person.  This ideal person, or figure, embodies the core values of said culture.  How this figure lives and what this figure stands for will represent the corporate identity of a certain culture.  He is, in some way, the culture boiled down, the incarnation of what is deepest, most valued, and most real.  The cowboy of the American West is just such a figure for traditional American culture. He embodies the self-sufficiency, the self-determinism, the radical optimism, and the values of liberty, justice, and equality that so permeate American society.  If one wishes to understand American society, studying the cowboy would be an good place to begin. My Canadian pastor says that the Mountie plays a similar role in the culture of our northern neighbors, with its greater emphasis on orderly westward advance rather than gun-slinging.

If the cowboy is the representative figure for America, the Bedouin nomad is the representative figure for much of the Islamic Middle East and North Africa.  The Bedouin nomad embodies the core values of Middle Eastern culture. Ed Hoskins, a scholar who has studied Islamic culture extensively, writes of the Muslim’s view of the Bedouin:

Bedouin men and women are admired, emulated, and lionized… [Bedouins are] bold, chivalrous, proud, sentimental, pious, and honorable.  They are free – unbound by most restrictions and limited only by their own strength – as well as ceremonial, decent, dignified, and true to their promise.  They are discrete, ascetic, generous, grateful, obedient to parents, loyal to friends and relatives, and honoring of the elderly.  They are firm, stable, patient, and persevering.  Nearly all Muslims strive to live up to these standards.

Want to better understand the soul of Middle East? Learning about the Bedouin would be a good place to start. And when it comes to any culture, it’s worth asking, “Who is the ideal figure for this people?”


Edward J. Hoskins, A Muslim’s Heart, p. 9

Photo by Fabien Bazanegue on Unsplash

Twelve Aspects of Culture that Can Impede Communication

Have you ever felt like you and another person are not speaking the same language, even though you are speaking the same language? Effective communication happens when the words and forms you are using convey your intended meaning to the one you’re speaking to, and vice-versa. Unfortunately, a different meaning is often what is understood despite our best efforts to make ourselves clear. What is going on when this happens? Turns out there are quite a few cultural elements at play in the midst of our miscommunication. It’s often when you study another culture and language that your eyes are opened to these dynamics of your native culture that have been there all along. But we like to assume that if we share the same language, we share the same culture of communication. Often, this is not the case at all. Here are twelve aspects of communication culture. How many of these dynamics might be at play in the conflicts we are currently experiencing? Given the complexity of communicating clearly, we should even more seriously take to heart the biblical wisdom of being “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:9). This post will be a flyover, with hopes of digging into these various aspects one at a time in the future.

  1. Personality – This one is a no-brainer. Different people with different personalities communicate accordingly. The complexity of individual personality bears on the way we communicate, as extroverts and introverts will readily attest.
  2. Family – Many a marriage conflict has been affected by different family cultures of communication. Growing up, did your family communicate directly or indirectly? Was there a lot of joking and sarcasm or serious conversation? How much emotion was normal in the home?
  3. Subculture – Generations have a particular subculture of communication about them, as do those who associate with different social movements. Evangelicals have a different vocabulary than Catholics do. Hipsters like to speak in tones that are emotionally-muted. Why? The effects of subculture.
  4. Region/Nation – Ever moved to a different region of your home country or to a different country altogether? It’s no secret that Yankees speak more directly than Southerners do, and that Southerners are far more likely to greet a stranger on the street. Regional culture affects communication, as does national culture. Canadians attach the friendly “eh?” to the end of their statements and Americans like to drop the honorary titles, “Just call me Jim.”
  5. Orality and Literacy – Most would be familiar with the categories of literate (able to read and write) and illiterate (not able). But literacy should be thought of as a spectrum, with many gradations along the way from illiteracy to highly literate. Many never read for pleasure, but only when necessary. Others can technically read, but struggle to summarize a text in their own words and write a response. The poor the world over lean more heavily on proverbs and truisms than the wealthy do. Some think in soundbites while others think in paragraphs. These are the effects of orality and literacy.
  6. Honor vs Justice – When it comes to motivation, does a culture primarily speak about what is right and wrong or on what is honorable vs what is shameful? Is a person guilty by nature of what he has done or guilty only if pronounced so by the community? How is one praised or condemned?
  7. Gender Roles – How does a culture idealize gender roles? Are they viewed as largely interchangeable or as distinct and unable to be exchanged without bad effects? Some cultures, for example, even forbid communication between unrelated men and women. Restaurants have sections for men only and sections for families. Western culture, on the other hand, used to distinguish between waiters and waitresses, but now uses the generic term “server.”
  8. Social Power – How does a culture idealize differences in positions of authority? Should the playing field be leveled or should the power differentials be maintained and strengthened? This effects the use of titles, first names, how communication proceeds to superiors (and back down to employees), and how the young relate to the elderly.
  9. Contexting – This is how directly or indirectly a culture communicates. In a culture with high contexting, individuals assume a shared understanding with those they are communicating to. Therefore, their communication is more indirect since everyone is supposed to know what a certain action or phrase means. In a culture with low contexting, individuals do not assume that there is a shared understanding of meaning, therefore communication is more direct and explicit.
  10. Individualism vs. Collectivism – Individualism and collectivism represent a spectrum of how people define themselves in different cultures. Is a person defined as primarily an individual or as primarily a member of a group? Which is more prominent, “we” or “I”?
  11. Time – Cultures tend to be either monochronic or polychronic in their beliefs about time. If a culture is monochronic it believes that time is unitary and dividing up time is not valued. Time is viewed as more of a circle and less like a line. If a culture is polychronic it believes that time is a commodity that can be divided up and used like a resource. Time is viewed like a line or a road. Does the meeting starting at 10 am mean 10:00 sharp or anytime from 10:00-11:00?
  12. Non-Verbal Communication – This refers to aspects of communication apart from verbal speech. These parts of communication account for the majority (75 percent!) of actual communication that takes place. When a person’s verbal communication contradicts their non-verbal communication, those on the receiving end tend to believe the non-verbal, emphasizing the power of this kind of non-speaking speech. This can include body language, the use of physical space and distance when communicating, and choice of clothing.

This flyover should suffice to demonstrate many of the factors that might be affecting our communication. While none of us can keep all of these things in mind at the same time, it’s helpful to be aware of these categories just enough to recognize when a conflict may be the result of some clash of cultural background or values. Sometimes merely clarifying that a conflict is a difference of culture rather than only a sin issue can bring needed grace into the conversation.

For items 6-12, I’ve relied upon the categories spelled out in Scott Moreau’s excellent book, Effective Intercultural Communication.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Can the Name of Allah Be Used for the Christian God?

Short answer: It depends.

Long answer:

First, some historical background. There were Arab Christians before the emergence of Islam that used Allah to refer to the Christian God. These were Arab tribes such as the Lakhmids, the Banu Taghlib, and the Ghassanids who lived on the borders of the Byzantine and Sassanian empires. In fact, one of the oldest sources of written Arabic is a monastery inscription written by Hind, mother of the Lakhmid king, Amr, which reads “This church was built by Hind, mother of King Amr and servant of Christ… May the God for whom she built this church forgiver her sins and have mercy on her son.” Arabic Christians have continued throughout history to use the name Allah to refer to the God of the Bible to the present day. The name Allah is linguistically related to the Aramaic name for God, Alaha, and more importantly, to the Hebrew name, El. So in terms of history and etymology, Allah has a strong case. It has been conveying the meaning of the God of Bible’s identity for at least 1,500 years among Arabic-speaking Christians. Its sister languages have been similarly using its cognates for even longer than that.

But what about Islam? What happens when a rival religion emerges and hijacks the name for God the Christians have been using, filling it with unbiblical meaning? The god the Qur’an describes is vastly different from the God the Bible describes. The god of the Qur’an is a simple unity who is transcendent, but not imminent. The God of the Bible is a complex unity, a Trinity, who is both transcendent and imminent. The nature of the former means he cannot become a man to die a shameful death on a cross for the atonement of sins. The latter did, as the eternal Son took on flesh and became the man, Jesus Christ. Despite this and many other differences, Arab Christians throughout history, including our evangelical brothers and sisters, have held onto the name Allah for God. They are the linguistic insiders, the ones best qualified to know whether the biblical meaning of God can still be communicated by the form, Allah. English speakers should defer to native Arabic speakers, agreeing that within the Arabic language, Allah can be used to speak of the Christian God.

As English speakers, a little reflection on our own word, God, can be helpful here. In spite of its polytheistic Indo-European and Germanic baggage, the name God has been redeemed and filled for a millennium and a half with biblical meaning. Therefore, our own experience tells us that names of deities with pagan baggage can become faithful linguistic servants of the true revelation. Let’s say Mormonism, with its own unbiblical views of God, overtakes Christianity in the West and becomes the dominant religion. Would we abandon the name, God? Unlikely. We would probably labor for thousands of years to refill the form with its biblical meaning, not unlike what Arab Christians have done.

But…

The name Allah should not be used to refer to the God of the Bible outside of Arabic-speaking communities. There are at least three reasons for this.

The first is that Christian history and missions history have shown that whenever possible, Christians should seek to redeem the indigenous word for the all-powerful creator God that already exists in that language, if one exists. Again, we English speakers live this reality every day when we say God instead of YHWH or El. Why has redeeming the chief divinity’s name been so effective throughout history in hundreds of languages? My theory is that the name for the all-powerful creator god in a given language represents an ancient remnant of early monotheism, diluted sometime after Babel into polytheism, but still there, waiting like a time-bomb for a Christian missionary to come along and connect that name back to its source. He has not left them without a witness to himself (Acts 14:17).

The second reason for not using Allah in other linguistic contexts is that Allah primarily represents/means the god of Islam in those other languages, making it more harmful than not to communicating the biblical God. Languages other than Arabic don’t have the broader range of meanings of Allah that Arabic has, in which Allah continues to be used also as the God of Arabic Christians and Jews. These languages often have another name for the all-powerful creator god in addition to the more narrowly-understood Allah proclaimed among them by Islam. This is true of the Muslim Central Asian people group that we work among and many others. Our focus people group, interestingly enough, has a name for God that is a very distant cousin-cognate to our English term, God. When they use this indigenous name, it carries a broader sense than Allah does, thus giving us more room to build biblical categories. We sense this even in English. When someone speaks of Allah we understand that that person is speaking of the god of Islam in a narrower sense than we use the term God in English. Words really do carry around meaning-baggage with them, and we need to acknowledge it and carefully judge if a name is already so tied to unbiblical meaning as to be not worth the salvage effort. In other languages, Allah is not worth the effort it would take to redeem it, especially when God has preserved an indigenous name for the all-powerful creator god in that language.

That brings me to my third reason to not use Allah to refer to the biblical God in non-Arabic contexts. Islam teaches that in order to please God, you must pray, worship, and live like a 7th century Arab. It teaches that Arabic is the language of heaven and thus holier than all other languages. This means that all those other people groups who are Muslim have been raised to believe that their language is inferior for praying to Allah and that they will only get the spiritual merit they need to gain paradise if they pray in 7th century Arabic. In a real sense, they must become Arabs or they will go to hell. Why have the Persians, the Turks, the Kurds, the Berbers, the Dari, the Pashtun, the Baloch, the Somalis, and so many others blindly accepted this linguistic and cultural colonialism? It is tragic that no one has taught them that gentiles don’t need to become Jews in order to be saved, and therefore, they do not have to become Arabs. Missionaries run the risk of contributing to this Arab-supremacist heresy when we thoughtlessly or “creatively” use Allah among non-Arab people groups. Instead, we should be proclaiming that the true God knows their language and knows their people, that he loves them and desires for them to worship him in their own language as a unique manifestation of his glory – that he will even preserve worship in their language for all eternity (Rev 7:9). These truths are precious and powerful for oppressed people groups in a way that dominant people groups (like English and Arabic speakers) sometimes struggle to understand. Yes, the gospel will call them to transcend their ethno-linguistic identity as members of the race of Christ, but first it will honor their ethno-linguistic identity. In salvation, God will come to them and will speak to them in their mother tongue. So should we.

So, can Christians use the name of Allah to refer to the God of the Bible? It depends. If it’s in Arabic, absolutely. In other languages, let’s avoid it wherever possible.

Arab Christian History Source: Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 92

Photo by Rumman Amin on Unsplash

Gospel-Bold or Culture-Wise?

Sometimes we find ourselves between two opposing camps of believers. Let’s call them Gospelites and Culturites. Gospelites emphasize the crucial importance of bold gospel proclamation. They maintain that urgent and bold evangelism is far more important than studying the culture. Culturites, on the other hand, emphasize the necessity of cultural fluency in order to communicate the gospel faithfully. They insist it is crucial to know the culture in order to do gospel work well.

Gospelites might believe Culturites are slow, timid, and compromising. Culturites might believe Gospelites are naïve, brash, and unwise. I’ve had brothers tell me that I need to learn the culture and thereby “earn the right to speak,” while others balk, “Why study the culture? We’ve got Romans one!”

Gospelite or Culturite: Which Side Better Fits You?

Do we have to choose? What if we were raising up an army of laborers who are both gospel-bold and culture-wise? A right understanding of the relationship between gospel trust and cultural savvy frees us from this false choice and sets us on a powerful path for ministry.

Let Us Be Gospel-Bold

First, all our trust must be in the sufficiency of the gospel. It alone is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16). The gospel proclaims a holy God who saves sinful yet repentant men and women who believe in the perfect life, sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This message is true for all people of all neighborhoods, colors, and nations. Therefore, it must be the foundation, the cornerstone, the rope we grasp for dear life in all our ministry efforts.

But if the gospel is true, we can have steadfast confidence to do the work of the ministry regardless of cultural context, from day one. We have no fear; there is nothing to keep us from speaking gospel truth to the souls of mankind. This reliance and trust in the gospel releases us to share boldly and urgently. It frees us to be creative risk takers because we don’t trust our cultural expertise – we trust the gospel, and in that there is freedom to struggle forward in ministry.

Let Us Also Be Culture-Wise

This is where some stop. But it’s our trust in the gospel alone that compels us into a diligent engagement with the culture around us. We should work harder than any in becoming culture experts because we are utterly free. Through Christ, we have been made sons and daughters of God–waiting to inherit the whole world! Sons work harder than the slaves, for they work from love, gratitude, and hope for a glorious future. It’s our freedom under the grace of Christ that enables us to enter this world not to be conformed but as those who are being transformed (Romans 12:2). Let us then strive in our cultural context in the following ways.

1. MAKE THE GOSPEL CLEAR

The deeper our understanding of a culture and a language, the greater our ability to make the gospel clear. Do not assume that your hearers clearly understand your gospel sharing just because it is clear in your mind. What if their backgrounds have infused important words like sin and repentance with wrong definitions? What if their educational, societal, or worldview background is significantly different than yours? Gospel clarity in our proclamation calls for the study of the culture of our hearers.

2. MAKE THE GOSPEL COMPELLING

Knowing the culture means we can leverage its rules to strengthen our gospel proclamation.

The gospel is the most compelling message in the universe, yet for many it is initially foolish and shameful. However, every broken culture has providentially held onto certain gospel categories, analogies, and values. Studying culture helps us to discover these divinely-implanted areas which we can use to connect and illustrate gospel truth. Perhaps there is a famous myth in the culture, a sound proverb, or a traditional custom that will provide the key to a listener hearing the gospel story as beautiful and compelling, even if they are not yet ready to say it is true. Studying culture helps us to aim for the heart.

3. SHOW HONOR AND EQUALITY

We are called to outdo one another in showing honor (Rom 12:10). Cultures differ wildly in how honor is given and received. Should we use titles or first names? What seats are considered more honorable? What kind of clothing and body language communicate respect? Whatever your posture toward culture, we want to communicate respect toward our hearers as those who are made in the image of God. We, like they, are equally under the curse of Adam and equally invited to partake in the salvation of Jesus. By studying the culture of our hearers, we communicate honor and equality, helping us to avoid a colonizing mentality. All cultures are equal at the foot of the cross where all men are called to repent and believe.

4. BREAK THE RULES OF THE CULTURE ON PURPOSE

We must know the culture in order to make intentional choices about what rules we will keep and what rules we will break in order to preach the gospel faithfully. Cultural ignorance will lead to lots of broken cultural rules on accident. But we, like Jesus in John 4 with the Samaritan woman, need to know when we are breaking the cultural rules so that we may do so with intentionality and powerful effect. My family serves in an Islamic context, and we eat pork—not significant in the United States, but transgressive in our parts. Somehow, pork always leads to a conversation about scripture and the gospel! Knowing the culture means we can leverage its rules to strengthen our gospel proclamation.

5. DO NOT BE CAPTIVES OF ANY CULTURE

Having a culture always comes with blind-spots. If we are not careful, these blind spots can enslave our hearers in other cultures to an unbiblical cultural system in need of exposure and transformation. We cannot break free from a prison we cannot see. Studying foreign cultures makes us more aware of our own background. Particularly for those of us from dominant majority cultures, let us be very careful not to allow any culture to hold our minds captive.

Free and Fluent

Should we be gospel-bold or culture-wise? Yes. Trust in the gospel alone and push hard into mastering the culture. This approach is powerful and faithful not only for overseas workers like me, but also for those doing ministry anywhere in the world. Humans always have culture. This will serve those seeking to build multiethnic congregations, those bridging rural/urban divides, those involved in racial reconciliation, those ministering to different generations, those trying to penetrate an unreached people group, and all of us struggling to grow in our own sanctification. Let us be known as a people who are radically free in the gospel and powerfully fluent in the cultures of those we strive to serve.

This post was originally published at immanuelnetwork.org

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash