Culture: The Matrix In Which We Live
We can’t avoid culture. From the moment of our birth culture hunts us down—squeezing us into its mould—conforming us to its shape. In the West it dresses us in pink or blue and stamps us with culturally popular baby names—even if our parents try to be original, that notion too is culturally informed. Culture, transmitted via social learning, is the inescapable matrix that surrounds us from birth to death.
There are literally thousands of diverse cultures, so how do we communicate with each other? This is the domain of anthropology, a discipline that provides tools for cross-cultural understanding and communication. Knowledge of anthropology can help us effectively reach people outside our own culture by culturally adapting the Biblical message. This is not changing the Gospel, but understanding the cultural context in which it is presented. Paul laid down the template—those that preach the Gospel need to become “all things to all people”.
God isn’t in the business of changing cultures; He wants to change hearts. To assume that one’s own culture is superior is ethnocentric and can hinder the ability of others to receive the Gospel. Of course, this is not new. The birth of the church was hindered by ethnocentrism when Jewish Christians assumed that gentile converts needed to adopt the practice of circumcision. In response, the Council at Jerusalem found that the gentiles did not have to adopt another culture; rather, the Jewish Christians had to learn to accept them as they were. The principle is clear—we must do the adapting, not the people we seek to reach.
If you would like to learn more about culture and anthropology enrol in our course Reading Cultures which provides a foundation for nuanced cultural dialogue.
Kraft, Charles H. Anthropology for Christian Witness. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996.