Anthropology and Missiology

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I’ve been meaning (in all my dorkiness, that is) to blog about this for quite sometime, to review a book that a pastor gave me on our recent trip to Yunnan, which I read cover-to-cover in the airport and on the plane on the way back, and which I think raises some age-old (yet still, I hope, interesting to the readers of my blog) conversations about faith and culture.

I was really curious to hear what Peter G. Hiebert, author of Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (1990), and a professor of anthropology at a seminary, might have to say about the two disciplines around which my life revolves.

The book is most directly written to missionaries about anthropology, so the type of dialogue between the disciplines that my dorkiness was craving wasn’t quite there. There were, however, some useful sections on the relative values of Western culture that are implicit and operative in any cross-cultural work we (whether anthropologists or missionaries) do, and a simplistic, yet useful formula I think for testing theology: running it by scripture, the work of the Holy Spirit, and one’s community. There was also attention to the revelation of the gospel in culture, first in Biblical cultures, and then in other historical and contemporary contexts.

Bu the author’s resolution to hold that “the gospel is distinct from human cultures,” although “it must always be expressed in cultural forms” (54), seems at the very least unhelpful and impractical, and at its worst, dangerous. When my husband took a missiology course at the seminary, he noted that missiologists tend to avoid some of the basic tenants of literary and historical criticism, insisting in effect that there is a Text behind the text, an authoritative reading, or a singular event in history that we can agree upon and even access, despite our inability to process this event apart from its cultural relevance or our own cultural lenses (let alone the question of how we access it through the different biases of the historical accounts and materials).

Now I realize that I may have lost some of you here with a string of words that can’t be found in online dictionaries (literary criticism, missiology, etc.), but my point is that as an anthropologist and as a Christian I have a high regard for both culture and the gospel, and I don’t see a problem with admitting that our culture plays a part in our reception, interpretation, and propagation of the gospel.

Additionally, I think it’s important to recognize that the Bible is a culturally specific document, and that our interpretation of that document should be sensitive to those cultural lenses, but is also subject to them and to our own. We can’t escape culture, and nor should we. In fact, I think as Western Christians, who have inflicted so much damage on people of other cultures throughout history because of our illusion that our cultural hegemony was synonymous with the gospel, it is humbling and vital that we recognize that the Spirit of God is moving strongly in the Church in the global South today.  We have much to learn about how people of these cultures are interpreting scripture and leading lives faithful to God’s call.

My point is, there’s nothing to fear here, to admit that the gospel is cultural at its very core.

It doesn’t make it any less poignant or any less true, and in fact, I think it opens the door for real cultural conversation and cultural exchange, because we can recognize that God’s call is at once specific to Jews and Gentiles, and to all peoples, powerfully illusive and impossible to “possess,” because it belongs to both everyone and to no one.

As an anthropologist and a Christian, I’ll continue to struggle with these questions, but what do you think??

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