Monthly Archives: April 2018

Missionaries and Culture

Missionaries do their work in a perilous environment. Such has been the rise of ideas such as “multi-culturalism”, that many missionaries now go by a different title: aidworkers, social-workers, educators, or even consultants. Opting for different titles is understandable. In the popular imagination, missionary is increasingly synonymous with colonialist, imperialist, or patronising religious types “forcing” their fundamentalist notions of exclusive paths to God. 

For the missionaries on the ground, the bigger challenge is not how unbelievers perceive their work. The far greater challenge is communicating Christianity to a culture whose worldview, language, customs, art, and social structure has been shaped by religious beliefs different to, and often hostile to, biblical Christianity. 

Those with little experience of this underestimate the size of the task. One might think it is merely a matter of finding correspondent words, symbols and media in the target culture, and simply translating from one culture to another. Sometimes that can be done. 

But here is the real dilemma: what do you do when the target culture has no words for what you need to communicate? What do you do when it has not developed its own writing system to read God’s Word? What do you do when its musical instruments have been used mostly for shamanistic ceremonies or for war-dances? What do you do if the commonly-practiced form of marriage is unbiblical? What do you do if the form of dress is shameful to the human made in God’s image?

According to some contemporary theories, you are not to judge such things. You are there to simply give out the propositional truths of the Gospel. Indeed, some missionaries have been taught the “cellophane-wrapping” view of culture. Culture is nothing more than the wrapping or packaging around the Gospel – meaningless and amoral in itself, simply an instance of varying human preference. Give out the message, and leave the cultural customs alone.

Serious missionaries know better. They know that within every culture there will be instances of God’s common grace: customs that produced social order, delicious meals, folk tales with moral power, social differentiation, special ceremonies, existing poems, songs, crafts, and artworks that can be used to illustrate and communicate biblical truths, and Paul did with the Greeks when quoting Epimenides, Aratus and Menander.

But they also know that cultures shaped by idolatry will have artworks that communicate idolatry, social customs that reinforce idolatry, and language reflective of idolatry. There will be gaping holes in the vocabulary, musical literacy and understanding of the world that need to be filled with Christian truth. There will be existing devices, technologies, and customs that cannot be used by Christians without severe confusion or strain on the conscience, which will need to be eliminated altogether, or transformed until they are no longer recognisable. Here the missionary is not simply co-opting and adapting what he finds; he is actively adding and removing in the name of helping an infant church learn to walk. 

The ability to do this skillfully requires the missionary become expert in two sets of meaning: biblical meaning, and cultural meaning. He must know what Christian truth and affection is, which means he cannot be a novice in the faith. He must then learn the meaning of his host culture, as completely as time allows. He need not become expert in evil (Ro 16:19), but he should be familiar enough with the culture to be able to readily understand the meaning of a certain musical instrument in the target culture, and whether it is consonant with Christian affections. He must continually be comparing Christian meaning with the symbols, devices, tools, customs, technologies, artworks, and media in the target culture. If he is not competent in both systems of meaning, two errors will result. 

One, he may ignore the system of meaning present in the culture, and simply impose the forms of meaning from his home culture. As we said, the missionary needs to do this where the target culture simply lacks the forms or devices to carry the weight of Christian truth. But this error is not simply introducing what is needed, it is ignoring what is present and may helpfully communicate truth. Christianity takes on a more foreign feel than necessary, often becoming a strange outpost of 1950s Americana on another continent. Believe it or not, this is the less serious error. 

Two, and more dangerously, he may uncritically adopt the system of meaning in the culture, believing that Christianity will be far more readily received and embraced if clothed in familiar symbols. His error is not simply that he translates the truth, it is that he does not carefully discern if some cultural forms will distort the message of Christianity once adopted. He avoids the ditch of paternalism, and swerves over into syncretism.

Missionaries need to be well-versed in the meaning of two worlds, and know how to use, adopt, reject, and adapt forms in the target culture, so that Christianity may progressively transform a people from “the empty tradition (anastrophe) received from [their] fathers” (1 Peter 1:18) into a people with honourable conduct (anastrophe) before the world (1 Pet 2:12). He is, whether he means to or not, a culture-maker and shaper. And who is sufficient for such things?

We Don’t Want Your White Man’s Religion

In Africa, particularly where black nationalist sentiments arise, it is not uncommon to hear the title of this post thrown around in conversation. Similarly, half-formed sentiments are uttered about missionaries who replaced the harmonious earth-religion of the peaceful indigenous people with their foreign religion, so as to steal their land and subjugate them.

The saddest irony of these assertions being made is that these sentiments are not even African. They were really birthed by Europeans influenced by the Enlightenment (particularly Rousseau and his “noble savage” idea). Those most vociferously calling for a pure African religious identity purged of the infection of European missionaries are unwittingly busy borrowing from other, less honourable, Europeans.

What is more important is whether there is any truth to these accusations. First, was the missionary movement of Christianity merely a disguised land-grab? Second, didn’t missionaries simply have their own culture, which they then imposed upon the indigenous people, unnecessarily displacing perfectly healthy cultural patterns?

Land-grabs in the name of religion are a painful and evil part of history. No defence of these can be offered, except that Jesus said his servants were not to fight for an earthly kingdom (Jo 18:36). When it was done, it was certainly not an act of obedience to Christ, or a legitimate part of missions. Missionaries are to plant churches, not conquer land. Too often, opportunistic politicians piggy-backed upon the genuine mission-work of missionaries (think Cecil John Rhodes using David Livingstone’s work).

The second question suffers from misunderstanding the meaning of culture. Did the missionaries have “their own culture”? Of course they did, as do we all. But if a culture is the incarnation of a religion, a religion externalised, then to the degree that those missionaries were allegiant to biblical Christianity, and to the degree that they had been shaped and formed by healthier forms of Christianity, their culture would have been a valid expression of Christian ideas.

The fact that these particular Christian missionaries were Caucasian is besides the point. What matters is if Christianity had come to dominate the worldview of the region in which they grew up. As it turns out, Christianity, in the broadest, trinitarian sense, came to dominate Europe for 1000 years. Pagan, warlike, and superstitious people in Europe were progressively transformed into the people that produced Milton, the Chartres Cathedral, the Magna Carta, Shakespearian Sonnets, and Bach. It had nothing to do with the amount of melanin in the skin, and everything to do with what worldview came to dominate.

In God’s providence, Christianity’s centre moved through the centuries from the Middle East, to Asia Minor, to North Africa, to Western Europe and to North America. During the era of the modern missionary movement (1750s onwards), Christianity was strongest in Europe and North America. Wherever it remained, it shaped those people, and their entire culture. Not perfectly, nor completely, but significantly. When Christians left their homelands to take the Gospel somewhere else, they were necessarily bringing the Gospel and their particular Christian culture to a people largely or totally bereft of it.

The same providence that centred Christianity in certain regions during certain eras also allowed that some continents or lands experienced centuries of what Romans 1 describes: the devolution that idolatry brings. That does not mean that no common grace existed in those places: Acts 14:17 says that it did. But to the degree that cultures were formed around animism, sun-worship, or some other form of idolatry, is the degree to which we would expect the image of God in them to have been further defaced and marred. We would expect their cultures, as the missionaries found them, to be externalisations of idolatry, as pre-Christian European culture certainly was.

Were those missionaries coming to a non-Christian culture then supposed to present a “culturally-neutral” Christianity to the people they evangelised? Such a thing is difficult to even conceptualise, let alone practise. A missionary not only teaches ideas, he teaches the people to sing, to speak purely, to dress modestly, to worship, to obey God in all of life. He must, and necessarily will, shape the culture of the people he evangelises.

He must start somewhere, and present the newly converted people some cultural forms, especially if the indigenous ones he finds present are irredeemably idolatrous in meaning. (This is worth exploring further, and we’ll do so in the next post.)

As an example, we might reference Robert Moffat in southern Africa, who not only translated the Bible into Tswana, but also many hymns. He produced the first Tswana hymnbook, and the first original hymn in Tswana.

Is this imposing “white culture” upon “black culture”? No, it is presenting translated forms of a Christian culture that grew up in Europe to an infant Christian culture in another place. As these people imbibe Christianity, and it shapes them for generations, they will eventually speak in their own voice. But you must learn to walk before you can sprint, and one of the healthier things that a newborn Christian culture can do is hear the songs, histories, poems, sermons, biographies, of the church universal. Avoiding these cultural forms in the name of ethnic nationalism is simply pride, and will not produce a pure “African” or “Asian” Christianity. It will likely produce another syncretised Christianity with idolatrous ideas mixed in with Christianity. The only way to see the idolatry in your own culture is to step away from it by being exposed to the culture of historic Christianity, which has spanned five continents, and two thousand years.

It took more than a millennium of Christian ideas in Europe to produce a Bach. We may still be centuries away from an African Bach, or a Chinese Notre Dame, or a Polynesian Watts. But that is a function of time, not of skin colour. In many ways, Christianity has taken hold in Africa, South America and south-east Asia a lot faster than it did in Europe. True, often the Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep. Often, pop culture is secularising the Christianity that emerges. But it remains to be seen how true Christianity will leaven the cultural lump in Africa, Asia, and South America.

Will Europeans and North Americans eventually be saying to missionaries from Africa, “We don’t want your black man’s religion”? Perhaps it will be sadly be the case. For man, ever seeking justification for his rebellion against God, finds great convenience in the excuse that the Gospel must be untrue because it was brought to him by people from a foreign nation, who had it before he did.