Have you ever heard that a fish doesn’t know it lives in water? This can be applied to American Christian culture. For many centuries, the Western world has seen its culture and worldview as normative, whereby all other cultures (and forms of Christianity) must adhere to and look like us. However, many of us in the West, especially Americans, do not realize that we have a particular culture and way of living that is not normative. In order to know others (and even know God), we must know who we are and where we are coming from. This kind of insight can bring about systemic and large scale change as we gain perspective on the worldviews and paradigms of the West that need to be affirmed, challenged, and reformed.
With the reality and devastation of two world wars and an end to failed experiments in Marxism, the world is still holding on to modern ways, yet with a deep cynicism that anything can be true or bring true progress. A post-modern world has emerged where most people believe truth is relative and up to the individual. Ancient Greek Stoicism and Epicureanism have returned in pop culture to rise above a meaningless existence to either “Keep Calm and Carry On” or “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” All one needs to do is search the iTunes top 20 pop songs and see how the majority of lyrics conclude uncertainty about the future, but hope for “tonight.” To me, this reveals a lack of belief by millennials that life within any kind of meta-narrative, a larger story that makes sense of life, truly exists. All that matters is one’s own seeking of personal glory and purpose, whether it is through disgraceful or noble behavior. One major problem with this consumerist, self-seeking individualism is that each person becomes their own god by choosing their own paradigm in which to live. This issue has permeated Western Christianity, especially through the movement to separate the sacred and secular in daily life, by believers who opt out of participation in church and seek to privatize their relationship with God by their own personal preferences, thus choosing to ignore biblical teaching, church tradition, and God’s communal and relational design for humanity. Lesslie Newbigin calls this monadism.
After becoming aware of our own cultural markings, we can explore the beautiful diversity of God’s world and seek what missiologist David Bosch calls interculturation. This is a call for cultural and ecumenical unity. Bosch says, “All theologies…need one another; they influence, challenge, enrich, and invigorate each other.” With this approach, Bosch says we can have a “creative tension” through a model of “unity through reconciled diversity.” This is a posture that hopes for Revelation 7:9 to come true on earth instead of waiting for the heavenly experience.
One must enter in to another culture with great humility, ready to be challenged by the differences they experience. No historian is more highly praised in this subject than Andrew Walls, who has two seminal books on the missionary movement and the cross-cultural process in Christian history. He argues that Christ, through the incarnation, was the first great cultural translation in the Christian faith. Walls also believes that Christianity is at home in all cultures and in no culture because it is “infinitely translatable.” Unlike Islam, which demands a normative culture for its religion to flourish, Christianity can be a faith that challenges and affirms all cultures. Lamin Sanneh suggests that we must embrace the diversity of God’s people, instead of seeking to protect and guard against the influence of what is different. As a result, we will see that we need each other. Missions, but also the Christian life in general, must be a two-way street between cultures.
“The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History“
“Translating the Message“
“New Global Mission“
“Jesus through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture“
“Believing in the Future: Toward a Missiology of Western Culture“
“The Open Secret“
“The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society“
“The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind“
“Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-term Missions with Cultural Intelligence“