An Idiom For When It’s Over Your Head

It’s like you’re counting walnuts for me.

Local Oral Tradition

This is the local equivalent of “It’s all Greek to me.” Local walnut sellers count walnuts by the handful. They know exactly how many walnuts are in each handful and are extremely fast at their arithmetic as their hands transfer walnuts lightning-quick out of their large sack and into the customer’s bag. For the uninitiated (like me) it’s very hard to follow. But apparently I’m not the only one. This speedy method of the walnut sellers has become a local idiom for any time information has simply been over your head, too complex to grasp.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t get any of that. It’s like your counting walnuts for me.”

Photo by 🌻 on Unsplash

To Not Plateau, We Need a Map

“There is learning the culture so we can function well in the guest room, drinking chai and being polite. But then there is a whole deeper level to the culture when you are invited into the family spaces of the home.”

A colleague shared this wise advice with me the other day. His family had just been affirmed by a local brother as the best foreigners he had seen when it came to functioning well in local culture. So I passed on this feedback to my colleague – and asked for all his notes! But as is so often the case, this family’s progress in learning the culture had been a process more intuitive than systematic, more of an art than a science. Some are just natural artists. They sense their way forward, catching the culture as it were. But I have wondered for a long time if there are ways to make culture acquisition more visible for the benefit of all learners, whether we have a high CQ (cultural quotient) or not.

The truth is that culture acquisition is much harder to track than language acquisition. And language acquisition is itself a very subjective and slippery thing to measure. But culture? It’s everywhere and yet at the same time invisible. At least language has academic systems like the ACTFL scale that can provide some handles to know where a learner is at. To my knowledge, nothing like this exists to measure culture acquisition. Perhaps tools have been developed for specific cultures, but is there a universal tool that can be used to approach any culture and provide some kind of a systematic roadmap for studying it?

I have been greatly helped by A. Scott Moreau’s categories for intercultural communication in his book, Effective Intercultural Communication.

Sarah Lanier has charted helpful categories between “warm climate” and “cold climate” cultures in her book, Foreign to Familiar. Lingenfelter covers similar ground in his book, Ministering Cross-Culturally.

An anthropologist specific to our people group has opened my eyes to the importance of categories such as kinship, honor and shame, fear and gossip, the modern state, gender roles, the body, and fate.

I’ve also stumbled into some very different categories I haven’t heard discussed, but which impact our work greatly, such as how a people group is oriented towards institutions and formal organization.

On a practical level, beyond these underlying worldview categories are the important life ceremonies. How does a culture recognize pregnancies, births, birthdays, circumcisions, coming of age, graduations, engagements, marriages, new homes, sicknesses, deaths, etc?

In spite of all of these important areas of culture (and so many more) running in the background, most of us merely acquire just enough of the target culture to become functional. Then we plateau. It mirrors language acquisition in this way. Without a conscious effort to keep intentionally learning, the mind naturally settles in to a level that is merely workable for daily life. This might work well for a season, but it’s often not sufficient for navigating conflict and crises, and it can prevent us from doing deeper contextualization that might lead to breakthroughs.

This post is a call for careful thinking that leads to an accessible method of measuring culture acquisition. If it already exists, it is obscure and not known to the broader missions community (at least my circles). If it does not exist, then it would greatly serve the global church for one to be developed.

We need to fight the tendency to plateau – especially those of us working in cross-cultural contexts. To do this, we could use a map whereby we are able to have some better handles on this whole idea of culture acquisition. If I could give my family and my colleagues a tool like this that could give them some idea of where to focus next, that would be a very practical help for our work.

No one’s ever told us about circumcision rites before? Let’s cover that next. The local culture’s understanding of circumcision (if they practice it as ours does – tragically on girls as well) is bound to be imposed upon the scriptures that speak of it. We would be wise to know what context locals are bringing to that Bible study. But without a map or a tool prompting us to ask about things like this, we could miss it entirely. Plateauing might not seem that serious, but examples like this help illustrate why pressing on in a comprehensive understanding of the culture can make all the difference.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

What Is Central Asia?

Turns out it’s a bit more complicated to define the region of Central Asia than one might initially think. Geographically, I appreciate how this map divides the political states between homeland areas and those areas where some CA peoples are present, but not dominant. Notice all the countries that you might not think of as Central Asian where the darker homeland blue spills over into a predominantly white or light blue nation-state: Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and China.

Culturally, the best shorthand for summarizing this region is to organize it around two primary language and culture groups: Persian and Turkic. The largest people groups and the vast majority of the groups in this area are either Persian-related or Turkic-related. That helps bring some clarity to an otherwise messy situation. Someone working in Pakistan is clearly working in what’s normally politically and geographically called South Asia. But if they are working with Pashtuns (Persian-related) in the West of the country, then they are culturally and linguistically (and even geographically) very much in Central Asia. Part of the issue is the huge Eurasian landmass itself and the fact that the the cultural-linguistic spheres don’t necessary match the political and geographic borders. And then of course if you get into the mountains you will always find minority people groups and languages that will add more complexity to whatever principle of organization is used to label things.

Want to get a sense of what this region of the world feels like? Take a look at this intro video below. Parts of this video were filmed in the area where we serve, but yes, for security’s sake I’m going to have to keep you guessing as to which part of this very big region we ourselves live in.

A Proverb On Solidarity

When in the city of the blind, cover your eyes.

Local Oral Tradition

This is a proverb very appropriate for a culture like this one that prioritizes the group over the individual. In contrast to the English proverb “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” this local proverb tells you that it’s better to relinquish or hide your advantage and handicap yourself for the sake of not bringing shame to the community. This is the logic I’ve often heard in this culture for married couples being discouraged from showing affection in public. “Think of how badly the singles must feel when they see that,” is how my local friends put it. Similarly, I’ve read of cultures where it’s shameful for a runner in a race to win by too great an advantage, because that would make the other runners feel too embarrassed. Cultures or individuals who are more individualistic might be fine with displaying an advantage that others don’t have. “What about my rights and being true to myself?” But in group-oriented cultures, this can be considered immodest and even shameful.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, it’s a Line Dance and a Picnic

Hallelujah, hallelujah, it's a line dance and a picnic 
For the return of Jesus, honorable clapping

ّWe are in the midst of the day that Christ returns 
Each and any colorful flower we place under his feet

Hallelujah, hallelujah, Christ is on his way
His return is soon, our hope is with him

We are in the midst of the day that Christ returns
Each and every colorful garment we place under his feet 

Hallelujah, hallelujah, Christ has come 
For the knowledge of God, he is the only way

We are in the midst of a project to record some local worship songs and some partners introduced us to this one. “It’s one of our believing friends’ favorites because it feels so local!” they said. And it’s true, in contrast to some of translated 90’s worship choruses, the melody is very much the local style. And the lyrics? Well, you bring in line dancing, picnics, and colorful flowers and you are speaking the love language of our local people group.

This is why it’s so important that local believers come to write their own worship songs. What Westerner would ever start a worship song or hymn like this? Hallelujah, hallelujah, it’s a line dance and a picnic? And yet in this culture, this is wedding language, family celebration language, the language of overflowing joy. These people burst out into line dancing whenever they are overcome with happiness. Just this past weekend we traveled to the top of a mountain during a snowfall. And what did we find there? A bunch of giddy locals playing music and line dancing in the snow (and also throwing snowballs at each other).

Our local climate is not exactly gentle. We have harsh winters and even harsher summers. But that means that locals are extra responsive to the gifts of beauty and green that creation gives. Every spring, when the land is reborn, it’s time for serious picnicking (I’ve never lived anywhere else where you have to factor in the reality of “picnic traffic”). How appropriate then that this song should envision the return of Christ, and the making of all things new, as a spring picnic scene.

Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

Roadmap Types and Compass Types

A number of years ago I was asked to crystallize the church planting vision and distinctives of our church’s elder team, and to build upon it. They wanted me to put these things into a written form that would bring some definition and guidance to what was emerging as a new international church planting network.

I remember reviewing one of the drafts of this project with the elder team. While the feedback was mostly encouraging, there was one piece that at the time I found confusing.

“I just don’t see a plan here,” said one elder.

Now, I had defined key terms, spelled out our distinctives, established the principles of our strategy, set some goals, and provided several pages of content covering what it meant for someone to be trained, sent, and supported within this network. So I was perplexed at what exactly it meant that one of our sharpest elders – a brother at the time working in management in the corporate world – couldn’t see a plan. We scheduled a follow up meeting together so that I could better understand what he meant.

Somewhere in the course of our meeting I came to clarity on a point that has served me ever since. Different personalities have different understandings of what that little word, plan, means. I illustrated the difference between myself and my fellow elder like this. He was a roadmap type, and I was a compass type. He was looking for detailed, step-by-step directions and definition to this church planting strategy. I had provided the vision, the distinctives, and the strategic principles, and simply hadn’t aware that anything else was necessary.

Compass types like me are happy to know where “North” is, and to navigate each situation according to the framework of theology and principles they’re committed to. But roadmap types, while recognizing the goodness of vision, principles, and theological frameworks, feel as if they’ve been given no clear leadership about what to do come Monday morning. If compass types are leading roadmap types, the roadmap types are often frustrated by the lack of practical detail. If roadmap guys are leading compass types, the compass types often feel micromanaged. When neither are aware of these different orientations toward planning, they are usually headed for a collision, often under the guise of other issues that might exist. I continue to experience the reality of these differences as I work with colleagues who are wired to be roadmap planners.

The good news is that both orientations are good and needed. The compass types can keep us from losing the forest for the trees and they excel in flexibility and adaptability – while all still tied to solid conviction. The roadmap types keep us rooted in the practical daily realities of what we actually need to do next. They are great at thinking through next steps and in providing liberating checklists that can melt away organizational fog. And they are often better at crystallizing actual methods and plans. I still don’t have a discipleship plan to give a new missionary if they request one. I prefer to weigh each new believer’s situation and to make a plan on the spot. But I have colleagues who can give you plans for phase one, phase two, phase three, etc.

The roadmap types can become a little too married to their plans and strategies and confuse application for principle. The compass types can forget that to actually do the work we need to commit to a defined method. If a roadmap type is tempted to think, “My method of evangelism is the biblical method,” a compass type is tempted to think, “Method? Who needs method? Just preach the gospel.” Both are off-balance.

One of the stranger realizations we’ve had since coming to the field is to realize that large “tribes” of missionaries are characterized in part by these different orientations. Let’s call one tribe the Church Multiplication tribe and another tribe the Church Health tribe. Many organizations, including my own, are made up of members representing both tribes.

The Church Multiplication tribe is the one writing all the books on new and exciting methodologies, movements, and strategies. They gauge if someone is part of their tribe by leading with questions about strategy and methodology. They are by far the bigger tribe. The Church Health tribe is the one writing all the articles and recording the podcasts which focus on the importance of theology and the local church in missions. They gauge if someone is part of their tribe by leading with questions about the gospel, ecclesiology, and a distrust of the current most popular method out there (today it’s DMM). The Church Multiplication tribe tends to be evangelical, sometimes reformed, but not usually coming from a background which emphasizes ecclesiology. The Church Health tribe is often strongly reformed and evangelical and deeply impacted by groups like 9 Marks which labor to recover the centrality of the local church.

I find myself a man with feet in both camps. I have roots in the Church Multiplication tribe, but have been mentored and greatly helped by many in the Church Health tribe. I often find myself trying to nudge the Church Multiplication guys to give more weight to theology and the local church and stop trusting methods so much – and then trying to nudge the Church Health guys to give more weight to culture, methods, and contextualization. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll recognize these emphases. Now, these are all very important issues and conversations. I’m not downplaying the importance of the local church in missions or the importance of being thorough students of culture. I’ll take both, thank you.

But there is at least one difference that is not an issue of biblical conviction, but merely of group personality – and here is where I return to the roadmap vs. compass orientation. When these two tribes get together and discuss/argue methodology, I’m convinced that at least some of what is going on is a hidden issue of cross-cultural communication. It usually goes like this. The Church Multiplication camp is excited about a given method. The Church Health camp isn’t convinced it’s biblical. The Church Multiplication camp is a little offended at these prickly brethren playing the Bible card and push back to see if they have an alternative method to propose. The Church Health camp responds with biblical principles (compass language) – not a plan or a method (roadmap language). The discussion goes back and forth like this for a while and eventually ends with everyone feeling unsatisfied. The Church Health camp isn’t convinced that the other camp has biblical convictions and the Church Multiplication camp isn’t convinced the other side has a plan at all and assume they are merely going to reproduce traditional methods. In one sense, you could say they are speaking on different frequencies. And yet they aren’t aware of it. They are speaking past each other.

I’m convinced that learning about our own wiring and the wiring of others on this compass vs. roadmap spectrum is one practical way we can move toward healthier partnership on the field (and perhaps back home too). We can learn to speak the language of the other tribe, as it were, when we are communicating about our ministry, vision, and strategy. This can help us deal with the distrust that emerges when we don’t initially hear the other side addressing things that we find to be crucially important. When roadmap guys can tie their methods to principles and a theological framework, that will gain them a better hearing among the compass guys. When the compass guys can break down their principles into a nuts and bolts plan, that will gain them a better hearing among the roadmap guys. For example, Church Multiplication missiology quietly but deeply values the ability of a practitioner to visually portray his strategy on a napkin, a whiteboard, or on a screen. When Church Health guys scoff at this visual communication and merely stick to their thick position papers, they are missing an opportunity to communicate their convictions in different, but valid ways. Similarly, if Church Multiplication guys would write up some position papers that are very well-grounded in the Word, I think they’d be surprised at the kind of traction they’d get in different quarters.

In my story earlier, my fellow elder and I were on the same page theologically, but we had reached a misunderstanding because of a different personality-orientation toward planning. Turns out we were wired to see planning differently, to the glory of God. I needed general plans with goals, principles, and outlines. He needed plans with step-by-step procedures and detail. Our differences led to a stronger document in the end, because we were able to figure out a way forward in a context where our unity around the gospel and the essentials wasn’t in question.

Now that I’m on the mission field, our network of partners here is mostly Baptistic and reformed – everyone has Piper books on the shelf. And yet there have been some very deep rifts and hurts in the past over methodology. I think this unacknowledged difference of orientation is partially to blame. It’s not always an actual disagreement over theology and principle that divides us. It’s often differences in personality, culture, language, and politics. This is tragic. The good news is there are practical shifts that can be made in terms of language used and questions asked that can make a big difference.

Sometimes there will be real convictional differences that underlie these rifts. I’m not saying that all conflict between missionaries is simply a matter of misunderstanding one another’s wiring. But some of it is! Let’s get rid of that some. And then, if we have other believers on the field who indeed have different doctrine and convictions – then let’s pursue with them the healthy practice of theological and methodological triage.

And let’s learn to understand and value the compass types and roadmap types that the Lord has placed around us.

Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash

Please, Call Me Bob

Last night we were having dinner with some dear friends, one of the few families that has served here for more than a decade. They shared a story with us about the power of the title, pastor, here in this culture. In spite of being an ordained minister back in the West, learning the local language, and doing residential church planting work, many of the local believers were markedly more responsive when a visiting pastor from the outside would show up. All of the sudden, they would bring out great spiritual questions and want to sit and receive training – when they had resisted these very same things when offered in their language by a man who knew them and was actually living among them – because a real pastor was now present. My missionary friend, by doing the work of a church planter under the radar in a place where you can’t do so officially, was regularly not granted the respect given to someone who could afford to use the title of pastor or missionary openly.

“He’s been sacrificing everything for you for years! And you only show interest when the foreign pastor shows up? That’s the power of that title in this culture!” his wife said at one point.

What is going on here? Shouldn’t the one who does the labor of a pastor but can’t use the title for security purposes be granted the same level of respect as one who can use the title openly? At least part of this dynamic has to do with what is called high power distance and low power distance cultures.

Every culture has to deal with the unequal distribution of power within its own society. The difference between high power distance and low power distance cultures is how they think about what kind of power arrangement is most ideal. For those in low power cultures – like the West – we mentally and emotionally prefer to envision a culture where power is shared more equally. We don’t like authority figures to have too much more respect or power than their followers have. But those in high cultures actually value there being a big difference between how much respect and power is given to authority figures. In a low power culture, a more just society is one where everyone is treated equally. In a high culture, a more just society is where everyone is treated according to their status.

This comes out in interesting ways. Have you ever noticed how majority culture, middle-upper class Westerners have an aversion to titles? “Please, call me Bob,” a doctor might respond after you’ve just addressed him as Doctor so-and-so. However, this is not necessarily the case even in minority cultures in the West. In the US, African American and Hispanic cultures tend to put a higher value on the use of titles. Pay attention to the church signs and you’ll see what I mean.

High power cultures really value titles. They also value other signals of status, such as differentiation in dress and living standards. Framed certificates are displayed proudly in the workplace. Even in the home, titles for older siblings can often be used in place of their first name. To call an older brother (or any man) by his first name only can be taken as a grave offense. “Where’s your respect, you young whippersnapper?” The respectful maintenance and visibility of the hierarchy of power (age, class, position, etc.) is understood to be one of the cornerstones of a just and healthy society.

This is the unique situation my missionary friend found himself in, here in Central Asia. We, coming from a low power culture, deal daily with these strong dynamics of a high power culture. We live and work in a place where the use of the title missionary or pastor would actually accomplish a lot. But for security purposes, we can’t actually use these titles. And methodologically, we’re not always sure that we want to use them, given the ways these dynamics are often abused by local leaders. A local wolf in sheep’s clothing has no qualms about applying these titles and status symbols to himself, and thereby tapping into the honor the culture automatically extends to anyone who flaunts them. Domineering leadership is a real problem here, in basically every kind of authority. This gives us pause about merely taking on these authority status symbols uncritically. Yet to ignore them altogether is also not a very good option, because that often signals that we don’t actually think we have any authority at all.

Now, the Scriptures were written in high power cultures. The cultures of the ancient near east and the Greco-Roman world definitely held to the ideals of high power distance. And yet the word of God spoken into those cultures strikes an interesting posture. It both affirms the reality and goodness of authority, and the need to honor it appropriately, while also affirming the ideal of servant leadership and the equal dignity of every person (1 Pet 2:17, Eph 6:1, 1 Tim 5:17, Luke 22:26, 1 Pet 3:7). Going further, a common theme in books such as Luke and James is “the great reversal” where those the world does not honor are the ones who end up most honored by God: children, the poor, gentiles, and sinners (Luke 13:30, Matt 19:14, James 1:9-10, 1 Cor 1:26).

So, what are we to do when navigating these differences between low and high power cultures? We need to be able to study the whole counsel of the word on this topic, then study our own personal culture, and finally, study the different cultures we are interacting with.

We need to have a practical theology of power and authority. Again, the Bible affirms that authority is established by God (family, government, church, etc.) and therefore it is good and not to be rejected (Rom 13:1). However, our fallenness means that all authority here tends to be warped by sin (Gen 3:16, Ezekiel 34). Power in this age needs to be redeemed and transformed – but cannot discarded while living in the real world as God created it. What does redeemed and transformed authority look like? Jesus and the Apostles model this for us (Luke 22:27). Now, in the local church, the priesthood of all believers is to be celebrated, as is the special role of leaders within the body (1 Pet 2:9, Eph 4:11). Those with natural power are to rejoice in how the gospel makes them lowly. And those without natural power are to rejoice in how the gospel lifts them up (James 1:9-10). There are times when the use of titles is inappropriate, according to Jesus (Matt 23:1-12). And there are times when the use of titles can be done for the sake of godly respect (Mark 3:14). Wisdom, love, and context make all the difference here.

We also need to know our own cultural bent. If you are a Westerner reading this, it’s helpful to realize that we live in a culture that has serious issues with the very idea of power and authority itself. Western culture is philosophically bent towards living in a fantasy where power differences don’t have to exist. Yes, this even affects missionaries. Some have experimented with this fantasy in the house churches they plant overseas, trying to get rid of the role of a teacher or preacher altogether. However, being fantasy and not reality, this never works for the long term. Sooner or later leaders, teachers, and preachers always emerge. We might cringe when our local friends use respectful titles for us, but why is that? Where does that cringe originate? The Bible or some kind of cultural reaction we’ve inherited and continue to propagate? We need to take an honest look at our own power distance preferences and make sure we can pinpoint what is biblical and what is personal.

Studying the local culture’s power distance preference is also crucial. How do they envision the ideal distribution of power in society? And why? What of this needs to be redeemed and what needs to be rejected? In our local culture, I am thrilled that our local believers are trained from their youth to respect the elderly and to use respectful titles for them. This good cultural value needs to kept and deepened via gospel motivation. But the prideful arrogance that so often comes once a title like pastor has been bestowed – and the idea that this title is some kind of status for life that can be genetically passed onto children – that practice needs to be done away with among the new community of faith.

As with so many of these spectrums of culture, there are going to be cliffs on either side, expressions of a low power preference and those of a high power preference that clash with biblical principles. If you are flirting with the idea of getting rid of teachers in the local church, you’ve gone too far – just as you are if you believe that the pastor controls the decisions of the members of his church. Yet there’s going to be a range of expressions in the middle that are faithful to scripture, yet still feel very different from one another. It’s just not necessary that a church in Kentucky give a visiting speaker a special scarf in a public ceremony (complete with photos) after his sermon. But for Nepalese churches, this is highly honorable in the sight of all. When in Kentucky, privately give brother “Bob” an envelope containing an honorarium as a thank you, and that will do just fine.

Practically, it will be helpful for high power distance believers to wrestle with ways they can publicly honor the “least of these.” This will be radically counter-cultural. Just as it will be helpful for low power distance cultures to think about if there are particular ways they need to give “double honor” to the leaders and authority figures among them, as so much of the popular culture is raging against this – and even the leaders themselves might squirm when honored!

Fellow missionaries and anyone involved in ministry, let’s be sure we are making these decisions with scripture-informed intentionality, and not merely out of cultural default. This will take some work. But it will be work that will result in a community that leverages power differentials in a compelling and other-worldly way. In this world reeling from the abuses of the power and the abusive reactions to the abuses of power, this kind of redemption of power distances is desperately needed.

Photo by Mariah Solomon on Unsplash

*For more on high and low power distance cultures, see F. Scott Moreau’s Effective Intercultural Communication

A Local Tale on Unity

Our focus people group suffers from an unusual amount of internal disunity. Just ask any local man in the bazaar and he will gladly elaborate for you on this theme. Now, I know that the entire world seems polarized right now. But there’s something about people groups that are still essentially tribal in their thinking – and who haven’t had a powerful unifying leader or consensus emerge – that keeps them particularly and continually divided by outsiders and among themselves. Even when the outside world fumbles and they have a chance to gain some advantage they “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Personal gain undermines the common good time and time again.

A local tale cautions against this kind of disunity and holds out the hope of a better strength that might someday be possible. It goes like this.

“There once was a father with seven sons. He was up on the roof working and he overheard his seven sons fighting… again. Frustrated, he descended from the roof and called his seven sons together. One by one he gave six of them a single stick.

‘Break the stick, my son,’ the father ordered his sons, one after the other.

Each of the six sons with a single stick was able to break his stick in half easily. The father, after observing this, gathered up the stick fragments in a bundle and handed them to his seventh son.

‘Break the sticks, my son.”

Try as he might, the seventh son could not break the bundle of sticks.

‘Pay attention, my sons!’ said the father. ‘When you are divided and each of you stands alone, you can be easily broken. But if all seven of you stand together, you will be unbreakable.'”

This tale reminds me of the wisdom of the scriptures.

And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:12 ESV)

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! (Psalm 133:1 ESV)

Unity for unity’s sake is always an illusion. Unity requires substance, a shared love, shared commitments, and confessions. It requires definition. Broadness and narrowness applied in the right places. I don’t know if the tribes and political parties of our focus people group will ever be able to achieve meaningful unity. Perhaps. But my hope is that if they do, it will be because they will have learned it from the brotherhood displayed by a future network of healthy churches. The gospel will advance among this people group. And that means that one way or another, a healthy unity among believers and churches here will one day emerge.

Photo by Lorenzo Campregher on Unsplash

The Upsides of Local Houses

“Hm, there’s nothing especially pretty about the local architecture, is there?”

This comment from a visitor a few years back is a pretty good summary of how most Westerners feel about our local houses. Cement rectangles finished in plaster, paint, and tile maybe aren’t exactly something to write home about. Aesthetically, it’s like the sharp corners of the 1980s have been awkwardly wed to hints of Islamic and communist design. And yet, there a quite a few aspects of these houses that we’ve come to appreciate. As with so many other areas, the culture has even seeped into into the architecture, leading to houses that themselves communicate things about their environment and the people who live in them. Despite their challenges, my family continues to live in a typical house here, our third one now since moving overseas. Here are a few things I now appreciate about local houses.

A Separate Hosting Room. Most houses here include a room for hosting guests who come visiting. This room is typically well carpeted and the walls are lined with either couches or with local sitting mattresses. This hosting room is usually separated from the rest of the house by a door and often has its own entrance. This allows guests to be honorably hosted, but also contained out of sight of the necessary workings of the household and hospitality. The meal will often be served in this same room, with a long plastic or fabric table cloth laid on the floor. Guests can also sleep in this room, with the sitting mattresses doubling as beds and with the door providing adequate privacy. This compartmentalizing of hospitality means hosting is much more practical since all the required household business can still happen out of sight, even when guests are present. Just make sure one of the family members is in there with them, the guests are munching on something or someone’s working to bring tea or snacks, and the TV is on.

Diverse Toilets. Many local houses will now have both kinds of toilets, western and eastern. An eastern toilet is also popularly known as the squatty potty. It’s basically a porcelain hole in the floor complete with side treads for your feet so that you know you’re positioned correctly. I’m not going to go into details but let’s just say that it’s ideal to have both kinds of toilets on hand, both for hospitality and for dealing with different kinds of sicknesses! There’s also often an extra guest half-bath in the courtyard, just outside the hosting room, so that guests can use it without needing to pass through the family part of the house.

Flat Roofs. The flat roofs of our region mean that you have an accessible area for placing water tanks, random supplies (but only if they can survive the blistering heat), and air conditioning/heat units. The roofs also make great places to step out onto for a quiet moment or to sit around a fire at night. In the past, many families would sleep on their roofs during the summer, since the night air was much cooler than the air inside the cement house, which had soaked up the heat of the sun during the day. Many locals will also use the roof as a good place to hang up, beat, wash, and dry their Persian carpets, and sometimes to hang their laundry.

The Practical Kitchen. Why have only one kitchen when you can have two? Many local houses have two kitchens, one which is kept spotlessly presentable for guests, and one which is used for the messier stove-top cooking and food preparation. This second kitchen is called the practical kitchen and it is often built in a different room which is only partially sealed to the outside air. This is so that the heat of the stove can escape without being trapped in a house which is already overheating in the summer. Our practical kitchen contains our stove, our hot water boiler, and a chair for when my wife needs to find a quiet place to pray out of sight of the offsprings.

Courtyards. Though much smaller in modern houses than they used to be, courtyards still provide a vital space for the family to work and play with the privacy provided by a high wall and gate. The courtyard is considered part of the house so it gives the women of the family protected access to sunlight and often a small garden/yard area and a cement or tile floor where they can do necessary work. Like many locals, we are working hard to turn our small tiled courtyard into a small garden of sorts, a green refuge from the dust and cement of the city.

The Hamam. This room is a fully tiled space that is used for showers. Why limit yourself to a small tub and curtain in the corner when you can have your own tiled sauna room? Locals will often put their water boiler beneath the tiled floor so that the floor itself is heated as well as the water. As a Westerner who greatly appreciates hot showers, I have to say that the shower experience of the hamam is far superior to the Western-style corner or tub shower. That is, unless it’s like our previous house, where the floor of the hamam was somehow conducting electricity!

Light Wells. What do you do when you live in a country with inconsistent electricity? Build houses with light wells throughout, a shaft that goes up to a skylight on the roof, so that most rooms have access to some kind of window that receives natural light. In the dark of winter these light wells can make all the difference.

Local houses are quirky, no doubt. The quality of construction is not very good so things break all the time. I am nearing the completion of about a hundred small repair repair projects in the house where we currently live. In one sense, it would be much simpler to live in one of the new Western-style apartment towers that are being built. And yet there are things about these houses we have come to really appreciate. We can see how they have been built by a people who really care about guests, about family, about comfort, and about making the best out of an unreliable infrastructure. They have their own charm, even if it takes a while to recognize it.

And if I ever build my own house in the West somewhere, count on it, I will be including at least one squatty potty.

Photo by Sohaib Ghyasi on Unsplash

But They Really Do Resemble Their Mother

“You know,” said my host, “in Islam, it’s approved for a Christian girl to marry a Muslim man.”

“Yes,” I responded, “but it’s forbidden to happen the other way around, isn’t it?”

With a sheepish grin, my host admitted that it was true. Muslim men can marry women from other religions, but Muslim women are not allowed to marry men from other religions. My village host had been jesting (mostly) about having our single teammate marry one of his sons.

“For us true believers in Jesus,” I continued, “we won’t do it in either direction. Both men and women won’t marry someone who doesn’t share their same faith. Our faith is that central to us. It’s the same for our single friend here.”

Our gracious new teammate was already being jokingly called the family’s “bride” and she was enduring it admirably. But it was important for them to know that jesting aside, this was out of the question.

The seemingly inconsistent Islamic position on marrying nonbelievers is not inconsistent at all when you understand the cultural belief that it sprung out of – something called patrogenesis. This Middle Eastern and Central Asian belief holds that children biologically generate only from the father. Mothers are merely carriers, vessels, but they do not contribute meaningfully to the biological or spiritual makeup of the child. Strange as it may seem, this was the dominant view in this part of the world until quite recently. It now exists in an uneasy tension with the growing knowledge of genetics and modern medicine.

Because of this belief in patrogenesis, traditional locals do not believe that a child can be half one ethnicity and half another. They are considered one hundred percent the ethnicity of the father. This also holds true for religion. It simply doesn’t matter if the mother is another religion. If the father is a Muslim, the children will be born biologically Muslims. Therefore it’s no threat to the faith to have a Muslim man marry a Christian woman. Rather, it means the tribe has gained a “carrier” from a rival tribe. However, in this understanding any Muslim woman who marries a man from another religion has been lost to an enemy tribe, and is no longer able to contribute to the continuity of her own community. Hence why it was outlawed from the beginning of the faith.

But that’s not fair! No, it’s not, but it is awfully convenient, and one of the many aspects of Islam that allowed it to slowly squeeze the life out of the religious minorities in its domains over the last 1,400 years. This belief also has Islamic legal ramifications. Children legally belong only to the father, and not to the mother, since they are considered the fruit of his loins alone. You can imagine the terrible position this puts local mothers when dealing with an abusive man.

Even when it comes to small talk, it’s traditionally a shameful thing for children to be said to resemble their mother’s features. In the West, it’s a celebrated thing that all of my children look more like my wife – she is by far the prettier one in this relationship! But here in Central Asia, it’s kind of awkward for more traditional locals (who still point it out for some reason) and I find myself having to attempt to rescue them from the shameful situation their comment just created, “Look! They really did get my ears, Eh?!” While thinking to myself, Why are you publicly questioning my virility? How is that not weird?

Worse still, the presence of patrogenesis presents the possibility of heresy for the new believing community here. “Congratulations, a new believer has been born!” was how one believing friend greeted the birth of our third-born, much to our horror. The cultural logic makes sense. Dad is a believer, so newborn is a believer. The problem is this cultural belief is radically anti-gospel, the kind of dangerous assumption that means the gospel can be lost in one generation as the parents come to faith and the children are merely assumed to be believers by nature of their father’s blood. It has already happened to communities of Christians present in the Middle East from ancient times as well as those converted to Christianity by missionaries in the 1800s. Most of them have become new ethnic people groups, and the gospel emphasis on the new birth has been lost. This is where the tragic term, CBB (Christian background believer), came from.

Some cultural beliefs are not wrong, just different (as every culture-shocking new missionary constantly repeats to himself). Patrogenesis is not one of them. It’s not only scientifically wrong, it’s also morally wrong, denying women their equal dignity as co-contributors to the biology of their offspring. Patrogenesis relegates them to the status of a mere carrier and denies them equal parental rights. It’s an affront to the image of God that equally resides in every woman and to the wonder of the created female body. Frankly, it is an idea that requires the oft-overlooked contextualization category called rejection. Good contextualization means recognizing that part of the culture is downright evil, and needs to be discarded as soon as possible. Discarded – yet replaced with a better theology of the image of God and the wonder of two people conceiving spiritual-physical beings that have a real beginning in time, but who also live forever.

It’s these kinds of landmines that propel us ever onward in our attempt to learn the cultures of our lost friends. These sorts of underlying assumptions can go unknown and unchallenged for years, even when Muslims have believing friends who are sharing the gospel faithfully with them. Though it takes time, getting into these areas of worldview and belief is essential because they touch core issues of identity, how a certain enculturated person answers the crucial “Who am I?” question. And last I checked, a biblical understanding of identity has something to do with genuine faith.

These are the kinds of issues that run through my mind when believing Western friends genuinely ask if focusing on learning culture is really that biblical and necessary. “Can’t we just preach the gospel?” Yes, technically you can just preach the gospel. But surely you will be a more skillful and effective preacher if you dig deep into what your audience actually believes about life, birth, and death – rather than assuming they share your assumptions about these things. As those called to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), that also means attacking those worldview beliefs that radically disagree with the word of God. And that means tearing down anti-gospel strongholds like the belief in patrogenesis.

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash