Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Monday, July 23, 2007

Out of Africa - Lessons in cross cultural engagement

This summer, while the rest of the globe is digesting Harry Potter, I'm reading Isak Denesen's "Out of Africa". Karen Blixen is a remarkable story teller, and this memoir of her years as a coffee farmer in Africa is not only filled with marvelous prose and turnings of words; it's also a record of three things worthy of pondering for Christians:

1. The beauty of the land - In contrast to the prevailing mindset of her contemporary colonialists, Karen offers up a deep appreciation for the land.

2. The beauty of the people - Again differing from her peers, Karen's view of the native populace is that they bring a beautiful albeit different view of the world to the table, and that we who visit must tread lightly.

It's for these reasons that I'm guessing Karen's work is popular among the National Geographic, culturally amoral anthropological crowd. These are the folk who view every culture on the planet as morally neutral, and so feel that outsiders should never impose their outside culture on natives. This very same mindset creates disdain, among this crowd, for missionaries, who are viewed as cultural imperialists when they call people to Christ.

So let's address this charge of Christianity's tendency towards cultural imperialism:

1. Guilty as charged - we've imposed slavery, dress, diet, music, and economic systems, all western in origin, on every continent in the world.

2. Guilty as charged - we've ended sex trafficking, slave trade, human sacrifice, and child prostitution. We've 'imposed' literacy, clean drinking water, freedom from demonic oppression, medical care, healthy economic development through micro-loans, and the vision of a world filled with the justice, beauty, and peace of Christ.

I'll repent for most of list one - for none of list two. The reality is that everyone who makes a home in a foreign land effects that land, for the culture of a people is its own ecological system, in the same way that native plants are effected by invasive species. The trick comes in trying to sort out which of the effects are positive, which are negative, and then try to strengthen the former and limit that latter. Of course, this is where it gets challenging... for the secular anthropologist wants to bring different gifts than the Christian missionary. But I'd argue that both parties want many of the same things, and so might be able to work together more often than they do. Mountaineers are building schools in Nepal and so are Christians - ah, but the mountaineers expressly want to avoid teaching the Bible... so the two groups never work together. And right there's the rub... it's the question of whether 'the gospel' is both true and good. The secularist says no... the Christian says yes - hence the different visions of how to relate to culture.

What I appreciate about Blixen is that she sees herself as a guest... and learner, but as a guest with gifts to give, and as a learner with things to teach. This is how we must approach all people... the homeless, the person of a different political party, the immigrant, the native.

Here's what Karen writes about the natives: "...they were Africa in flesh and blood. The tall extinct volcano that rises above the Rift Valley, the broad Mimosa tress along the rivers, the Elephant and the Giraffe, were not more truly Africa than the Natives were, small figures in an immense scenery. All were different expression of one idea, variations upon the same theme.

Oh to approach the land and the people in it as a delighted, awestruck, learner... as Blixen did. Then, life becomes an adventure, relationships become whole, and ministry becomes fruitful. Happy reading.


At 23/7/07 20:33, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi- it's Janet D. from Holiday Bible Week at Capernwray. I enjoyed the article "Out of Africa" and resonate with your frustration of feeling that we are afraid to participate in what is true and good wherever we find it if certain Christian "brand name" labels are not attached. I also appreciate your challenge to critics of missionaries to step back and acknowledge that which has been done right in the name of Christ. There are two books which relate to this topic which you may have read - one is more well-known than the other. You mentioned mountaineers building schools in Nepal. Were you refering to Greg Mortenson and his book Three Cups of Tea? If so, when I read that book I remember thinking, "Greg, you are so close to the kingdom of God. If you were exposed to Christians living out God's vision of whole-hearted servanthood and humility, you would pursue Christ's teachings and seek Him." If you haven't read the book, there is info about it at

Also, Vishal Mangalwadi, an Indian Christian apologist and social reformer wrote a book called, "Missionary Conspiracy: Letters to a Postmodern Hindu" in which he seeks to respectfully counter those who refuse to acknowledge the positive contributions Western missionaries made to Indian society during the colonial period. The book jacket states, "No stranger to controversy in his own country, Mangalwadi unflinchingly takes on the cultured despisers of Victorian evangelicalism and painstakingly documents its achievements. And he warns of the dangers facing the world as Eastern Hinduism and Western Postmodernism coalesce. . ." Thought you might be interested in this book- enjoying the blog. Thank you.

At 24/7/07 22:33, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How does one add the Gospel to a culture and yet not eradicate that same culture? I am a Christian with Native American roots. I was born and raised in a Christian home, but only as an adult have I pursued my Native heritage. That is where it gets tricky. My ancestors were very "spiritual" people whose spirituality was present in most of what they did and said, especially in its legends and myths. There are some in the tribe who have today created a blended religion (Christianity plus Native beliefs) that has lost the focus on Christ. But when culture and spirituality are so entwined to begin with, what must be pruned to allow Christ to be Lord without killing the underlying culture?
Was it the missionaries who told us to stop using our own language and to stop living our lives as we had done for centuries before or was it the American melting pot urging us to become like everyone else? I know that first of all I am a Christian and that holds primacy over all else. But I am also Native American and still stuggling with how to be both.


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