I’ve written previously about the tendency of conspiracy theories to take too high a view of human potential. Many conspiracy theories depend on multi-generational secret global coordination that’s just not possible with for humans to pull off. The biblical worldview paints the successes of sin and power as temporary and illusory. Sooner or later everything falls apart as the inevitable destructiveness and selfishness of sin brings even the best diabolical schemes toppling down.
But there is another kind of conspiracy theory, one which takes too low a view of human nature. In this kind of apocalyptic theory, everything collapses. “Get some land in the mountains, stockpile food, and get a gun” is one earnest encouragement I received from another Christian some years ago. “The global food supply is right about to collapse. For your family’s sake, you need to be ready.” The brother who encouraged me to do this was no nut-job living in some kind of bunker. He was the manager of the coffeeshop where my wife worked and himself preparing to be on an international church planting team. Needless to say, his dire predictions a decade ago were wrong.
In that conversation I remember pushing back on several fronts. First, church history informs us that Christians largely stayed and served when calamity befell cities, often giving their lives to serve plague victims and thereby earning an incredible reputation for their faith. They did not run to the hills en masse with their families and weapons in tow (though fleeing can of course sometimes be a faithful option). Second, my friend’s dire warnings did not seem to take into account the incredible creativity, ingenuity, and adaptability that humans have for survival, profit, and system-creation.
I have lived in some extreme places and have visited others. Many of my coworkers have lived in even more extreme places than I have. One of the surprises of visiting these kind of areas? Life keeps on humming. People manage to eat, to have homes and jobs, to have systems of transportation and communication, and to have collective governance and defense. I’m not saying that life in places like failed states, conflict zones, or poverty-stricken areas is easy. But I am saying that humans are remarkably resilient and creative. If one structure collapses, five others rise up to fill the void almost overnight. And someone has figured out how to monetize it. Just look at the ways the world is currently innovating. We are living in a global pandemic, after all.
I live in an area of Central Asia that has experienced an incredible amount of conflict over the last couple hundred years. All of my local friends have incredible trauma in their background. Yet some of our local systems are more efficient and affordable than what we can get in the US. Here’s a brief list:
Fresh bread daily from local neighborhood bakeries, ten small steaming-hot loaves for a dollar
Simple, pay-as-you-go mobile phone systems. Buy a card at a neighborhood shop with credit on it, load it on your phone, no complicated contracts or fine print.
Neighborhood fruit and veggie trucks. These trucks are loaded up with fresh produce and make the rounds through every neighborhood, selling fresh and affordable fruits and veggies and announcing their arrival via loudspeakers.
Taxis and buses. Get anywhere in the city via taxi for $3 or take a bus on established routes for $0.20.
Pharmacy delivery. Stuck at home under a Covid-19 quarantine? No problem, local pharmacies will take your order via Facebook messenger and send a delivery man (for free) to your house with your needed meds.
Womens Saving Clubs. Having a hard time actually saving money for that new appliance? Join a group of 12 local women where everyone contributes $100 a month and when it’s your turn once a year you get “paid” your saved $1200.
You see, though we live in a place that raises eyebrows among outsiders and frightens off volunteers, locals manage to have some pretty efficient and creative systems for technically living in a war zone. I just learned this week that we have a new local service which will deliver flowers, novels, or locally-tailored men’s formal wear to your front door. Not bad, Central Asia, not bad at all.
To those who are given to the global-system-collapse conspiracies, I would encourage them to take a deeper view of history and a wider view of the current world. Yes, big collapses have happened. The transition from the Bronze Age economy to the Iron Age was devastating as everyone’s stockpiled bronze suddenly lost its value. Later, in the middle ages, global cooling caused crop failures on a massive scale, leading to widespread famine. The Great Depression one hundred years ago was real. It’s not the existence of crises like this I take issue with, but with the implied extent. The assumption is that a post-apocalyptic world will result, when history just doesn’t bear that out. Humans are too resourceful for that.
I believe this creativity and resourcefulness is rooted in our creation in the image of God and in the creation mandate.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them.
And God said to them,
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it,
and have dominion over the fish of the sea
and over the birds of the heavens
and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28 ESV)
Humanity’s incredible ingenuity and ability to bounce back and build societies comes from being created in the image of God. We can’t help but create, even when we don’t mean to. It’s in our very DNA. As we were commissioned to do in the beginning, we bring order in small ways to the rest of creation. Yes, all of this has been affected by the fall and our attempts at re-creation and bringing order are marred, transient, and imperfect. They are infected now with greed and a thousand other sins. And yet the image of God must have been so powerful in its unblemished form that it continues to shine forth even in the darkest parts of the globe and following the biggest calamities.
Why don’t I give much time of day to the global collapse conspiracy theories? It’s not because I have so much faith in humanity. I believe in total depravity. Rather, it’s because I have such faith in the remnant image of God within humanity. Even with our brokenness, we are an awfully creative bunch.
“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.
The one bitten by a snake is afraid of a black and white string.
Regional Oral Tradition
Fear is a slippery thing. Harmless situations can trigger overpowering responses of fear and anxiety if the mind and body connect them to past experiences. This proverb gets at the background of one who seems unnecessarily afraid of something. In the Middle East and Central Asia, nearly everyone is carrying around some kind of deep pain and trauma. Suspicion, fear, and anxiety then are to be expected.
A name great and renowned, but a village broken down.
Local Oral Tradition
This Central Asian proverb speaks to the importance of a leader’s immediate circle and responsibilities. He may have an impressive reputation, but the state of his household and village tell a lot about his real character and leadership. If teaching locals on the eldership qualifications from 1st Timothy chapter 3, I would use this local proverb as one way to illustrate the statement that an overseer must “manage his own household well” (1st Timothy 3:4). Ground the teaching in the text, illustrate it with the culture. In this case, with the oral tradition.
 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons,  through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared,  who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.  For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,  for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5 ESV)
We’ve been studying through 1st Timothy as a team during our digital team meetings. I highly recommend working through books of scripture with your church-planting team. As always, you will find the word of God stirring your affections for the gospel as well as emphasizing things that we might otherwise neglect. When the application lens is not only personal, but also with a view toward facilitating cross-cultural church plants, these studies can make for fascinating and helpful discussion. They can also alert us to dangers coming our way that the church has been facing from the beginning, as this passage does here.
Paul here highlights a certain stream of false teaching, one that is ultimately demonic, but which is facilitated through false teachers. This brand of false teaching is more conservative than the gospel. Specifically, it forbids certain created things (marriage, foods) and by the way it does so it denies the goodness of God’s creation. This is likely some brand of asceticism, that philosophical plague that has unceasingly dogged the church, teaching or implying that physical matter is really evil and that only the spiritual is good. In asceticism, the “truly devoted” Christians will give up these lesser physical things to try to reach a higher plane of spiritual existence or enlightenment. Paul points out that some will actually walk away from faith in the gospel to go down this more conservative road, when instead they should have acknowledged the goodness and freedom of God’s creation – where everything can be made holy by thanksgiving, the word, and prayer.
Some will walk away because Christians who live by the gospel are not conservative or radical enough for them. While individual Christians may gouge out an eye if they stumble in certain ways (e.g. alcohol or meat sacrificed to idols), that’s not enough for these who are falling away. They demand a different posture from the believing community toward certain created things and a new law forbidding them altogether. In doing so, they depart from true Christianity.
In our corner of Central Asia, we usually have local believers accusing us of being too conservative. Having cast off the restrictions of Islam, many struggle to understand and embrace the high moral standards the free gospel of grace calls us to live by. The momentum of the pendulum swings hard in the direction of licentiousness. They are shocked to find out that Jesus forbids sex outside of monogamous marriage, that the Bible forbids drunkenness and lying, and that we are called to give our money generously to the church. Isn’t God all about love and grace? What’s with all these restrictions? This isn’t Islam, after all!
And yet we are helped to anticipate others falling away in the other direction. Islam and Central Asian culture have very strong categories for the clean and the unclean. Matter is in a sense divided between good matter and bad matter. Pork and alcohol are two of the better known unclean substances. But if you dig a little deeper, you discover an underlying struggle to categorize all of life as clean or unclean. Religious call-in shows are full of old women calling in to get the mullah’s advice on the minutiae of whether doing something in a certain way is actually clean or unclean. And Islamic teaching often emphasizes the uncleanness of physical bodies – especially the uncleanness of the female body.
For some who profess faith, it will be a scandalous idea that one is not made spiritually unclean by pork, alcohol, praying without washing, menstruation, lovemaking, wearing nail polish, having cats and dogs as pets, or a hundred other things. Some will make it through this struggle. The Holy Spirit says that others will not. They will sadly go on to make new laws, forbidding good created gifts in such a way as to spit on God’s handiwork. It is good for us to be aware of this so that we are not shocked when it happens.
As one of my teammates pointed out, we tend to despise certain kinds of matter if they are connected to areas that we personally struggle with. So, my Western family is tempted to feel like some foods or technology are inherently bad because we have struggled with self-control or brokenness in these areas. But in spite of what we feel, the eternal word of God teaches us that everything created is good and can be made holy through thanksgiving, the word, and prayer.
Some will fall away because we are not conservative enough. But we will keep on proclaiming and living by faith in the tension of our own fallenness and the goodness of creation. We may forbid things for ourselves based on our weaknesses, but we will not do so in a way that communicates that substance itself is somehow evil and wrong for all believers. True believers, regardless of their background, come to embrace this gospel freedom and will not be among those who ultimately walk away.
This proverb means that a person is honored most in his own community. We have greater influence and “weight” where we are known and we feel the loss of that reputation when we are outsiders somewhere.
But as my eight-year-old son pointed out, this proverb may be generally true, but it is not true of prophets, those honored everywhere but their hometown (Matthew 13:57).