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.