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.

Book review: Faith on the Road – a short theology of travel and justice

I’ve been looking for something of a theology of travel online or in book format for over a year now but there just seemed to be nothing out there, which surprised me given the craze for travel.  Perhaps it’s because travel falls under a theology of work and rest in many minds, but I’m not so sure.  So I was thrilleFaith on the Roadd to pick up this short read put together by IVP USA.

The author, Joerg Rieger, is professor of constructive theology at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, and this hugely experienced and scholarly background in the topic (like any book) shaped the way the author approached the topic in a refreshing but not altogether traditionally evangelical approach (as I will note later).

To engage with his material, I will follow his structure of chapters and then make final comment:

Opening with a summary of “The Judeo-Christian Traditions on the Road”, the author makes an extensive case for travel being an integral part of the Biblical story throughout virtually every genre of literature.  But having built up such a positive picture, the chapter closes by noting that none of this Biblical travel is what we generally regard as travel – the holiday escape for little reason other than our own pleasure.

Chapter 2 “Travel, tourism and Migration: experiences from the road” makes a case that travel can be either broadening of one’s horizons or not so at all, depending on what attitudes we bring to it.  Introducing themes already of wealth inequality and the privilege of those who are able to travel, Jorg exposes selfish motives in very gentle ways and compares it to those who are nearly forced onto the road in migratory travel.  Regardless of which, the early exploration of “power differentials” – seeing every relationship on the road as a power exchange of some variety – was a helpful theme that then ran through the rest of the book.

In “Pilgrims and Vagabonds: challenges on the road” the author raises another point that will be repeated throughout the book: are we asking “is God on my side?” or “am I on God’s side?”  He notes that leaning towards the latter of these questions removes conquests to “seek God” in particular places or to see certain places as being abandoned by God, which perhaps runs contrary to some concepts of spiritual territories prevalent now-a-days.  Equally it puts a stopper to going on a pilgrimage to find God or persuade ourselves that God is on our side.  Inside we can find the freeing reality that the offer to be on God’s side is a free one that we can travel with.  Apart from this very valid point, the rest of the chapter’s intent was lost on me, as the author strays into vagabonding in literature, and brings out Marxian thought strongly (as the rest of the book tends to), even bringing Che Guevara into it!  Nonetheless the point that God is in control, we don’t need to hunt Him down (primarily) and that He is everywhere, was worth the chapter!

In the next chapter “Beyond religious tourism: short term mission trips and immersions up-side down”, Rieger tries to persuade that religious mission still reeks of a colonial era.  In fact, such negative vibes still get picked up from every aspect of his consideration of these things, that one is left wondering what his travel experiences were and why he went on them, if all is so inescapably negative on the power relationships we have with those we meet and influence (through our money, time, energy etc).  Putting question marks over whether a message could ever be preached on short term teams, I understand what Rieger may be reacting against, but wonder whether he does not go too far in his generalisations about short term mission.

Perhaps he speaks into a different scenario in American church scene.  His solution seems to be helping middle class americans encounter the urban poor on their own doorstep before they try to change the world outside of their own framework.  This, although exemplary in motive, is not exactly all realistic, given how much overseas mission helps vast numbers see things on my doorstep and how to respond to them.  In Cork, I encourage as many to get a heart for international students as possible, so that they can learn cross-cultural skills and convictions which they can apply to Irish culture.

Finally, the book concludes with “Travel as an act of Justice” and has a wonderful reminder that no travel is neutral, and that all travel should be done in respect to Christ’s heart for the poor, oppressed and those less fortunate.  Not only this, but it should be done in sustainable ways.  Whilst the author quotes Wesley in saying about the narrow road/gate (Matthew 7:13-14) that “are there many wise, many noble, many rich travelling with you in the same way?  By this token, without going any further, you know it does not lead to life”, I wonder again whether this yearning is just a bit misleading.  The author sits in the midst of academia, middle-class life, as a white privileged male, as one who has travelled the world, and much else.  Yet would he say he does not have life?

I remember on the summer in between university and starting full-time paid work, chauffeuring for an old American Christian couple who were living on a ranch next to George Bush Snr in the States and mixed with the president and his friends.  As we visited Michelin Star restaurants and stayed in five star hotels, I wept at my spiritual lethargy in such environments where I had everything I wanted at the click of a finger.  I wondered whether it was possible to be a Christian and live with such extravagance?

“Is it possible to be a Christian and live with such extravagance?”

But from that experience and others, I think it was me who had the unhealthy attitude and heart, not them.  They used their holiday to support their disabled son, to invest in evangelical theological education in Britain, and to bless many like myself.  Their spirituality was evident and their character exemplary.  Could this be done to God’s glory without further enhancing unhelpful inequalities?  The author’s strong political opinions on economics would say no.  I’m not sure I could go as far as that and make his answer mandatory for all Christians.  Let us bathe in scripture, ask helpful questions that are shaped by scripture (and not experience), and let the Holy Spirit convict us further if we are not dying to self in our travels.