Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures (Book review, IVP Academic, 2016)

I sat in the Christian Union (non-denominational campus ministry) missions committee meeting in my own house, just like every month of every semester.  But now, more than ever before, it all made sense.  This is why people were acting like this!

We had begun at 7pm with a meal.  I say “began” rather loosely.  Because at 7pm, the only one who’d shown up was the British student.  The Irish trundled in a little later, bringing a Germanic student with them (who didn’t know the way).  By 7.50pm, we were settling down to tea, coffee and dessert, and I was mightily impressed at how quickly things were moving.

Until the Germanic lady startled the room and drew everyone quiet:

“When are we starting the meeting?”

Many puzzled faces.

“I mean, I will have to leave soon” she said.

“When do you need to leave?” I asked.

“Uh, I guess pretty soon”.

And so with that knowledge, I “started” the meeting.  The fact that this was the first meeting of a committee, and that she didn’t know anyone yet, didn’t strike her as needing all this social faff before the meeting “proper”.  Nor did being in a culture that hugely values people, connections and relational life.

“Say who you are, what you study, where you’re from and why you wanted to be on the missions committee.”

And so we went round the room.  Much to the visible distress of the British, the answers to why they wanted to be on missions committee, were nothing to do with mission!

“I thought it’d be good craic” (x2)

“I wanted to be more involved in the community here in CU” (x3)

“Er, well, I think mission is great, and God has commanded it, so I want to reach the campus with the good news of Jesus” he said.

Silence.

Before the final person quickly took up the reins and said that they were there for the craic too.  Phew.  Awkward serious moment resolved.

Shortly afterwards, the Germanic lady got up and left.

“What was up with her?” said one of the Irish students, there for the craic.  “Is she not keen on this whole missions week thing?”


Culture is a baffling thing!  And the fact that the Bible was written by humans in a particular culture may not appear to immediately help the issue.  That evening to look at Acts 17, we first needed to see what culture the author was writing into.  Then from there, we needed to assess what culture we sit in, and then hardest of all, make the bridge from one culture to the other.

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The simplest of tasks like walking past a graveyard, becomes a complicated action when you’ve people from different cultural frameworks there!

The tricky thing about culture is that we all think we’re Biblical.  Because we read scripture through our own lenses.  Nigerians will always declare the Irish to not be passionate about faith at all (as you’ll see in this interview here).  British will always find the Irish not to be direct enough about an urgent proclamation of the gospel.  Americans will find the relational way of going about things to be the most unproductive, nepotistic way of doing life possible.  And those from Germany find the Irish to be quite two-faced…saying “yes” to things and yet not actually appearing to do them, or to turn up at all.

Are the Irish just a horrible bunch of people, in a culture seething with horrid practices?

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Because no Irish sign will ever directly tell you to do something….without at least making a joke about it.

Well, given I’m an Irishman writing this blog, I guess you may anticipate my response.  But this book (yes, we finally are getting to it), is one that will help anyone thinking through these questions or similar ones.

Jayson Georges and Mark D Baker play on years of experience of ministering within shame-honoUr (I insist on the proper spelling, sorry!) cultures.  The whole book is out to persuade us that there are 3 paradigms for culture:

  1. Fear and Power (Often thought to be African, animistic settings with witchdoctors)
  2. Shame and Honour (often considered to be Eastern settings)
  3. Guilt and Innocence (often considered to be Western settings)

And that none of them are “correct” or necessarily better than the other.  Here’s one chart to illustrate how we each think poorly about others who think differently:

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The book weaves in helpful stories from real life, solid handling of Biblical scriptures and texts, and very helpful nuances to their argument.  Here’s 3 things that I found helpful about that.

Firstly all their work was Biblical and opened my eyes (who has been theologically reading endless amounts) to new insights, fresh ways of thinking and things that warmed my heart about the God we serve.  Seeing outside of my own perspective is refreshing and paradigm shifting.  I’ll never be able to look back again.

Secondly their application to culture was very refreshing.  Their principles of what “shame/honour” culture looks like never stayed abstract.  They tell story after story of very helpful tales, all of which resounded with me and made sense.

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Up on top of a mountain with other international students, and I was interrupted by an Irish Aviation Authority tannoy system, telling us that the Gards had been called (in order to shame us into leaving).  The fact that the Gards had clearly not been called, is besides the point.

And thirdly, they always gave caveats to their arguments and never try and broad brushstroke everything.  Because “western” culture is not all guilt-innocence related.  In fact, in Ireland, according to those I’ve had do their test online here, Ireland is a good bit more shame orientated than guilt.  They also made the case that everyone will have some kind of mixture of values, and that it’s impossible to be all things to all men.  The more one delves into a particular framework and lives by it, the more alienating one will be to those of other cultures.  Try and stay separate from everything?  Impossible!  And you’ll only run the rick of not resonating with anyone.

This book is a fantastic point to delve deeper into this key topic, and those around me in Cork will know that it’s impacted me enough that they’ve had to endure me excitedly giving them a running commentary on culture in every gathering we’ve entered for the last few weeks.  However, if you’ve never thought about it before, this will be heavy going and you may prefer to start with reading chapter one, and then seeing for a few months whether you see what they’re talking about, as you look on life with others.

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One thought on “Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures (Book review, IVP Academic, 2016)

  1. Pingback: 10 for travellers to read in 2018 | al-jabr

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