Science in Christian Perspective



Anthropology and Christian Attitudes About Culture

From: JASA 7 (December 1956): 15-17.

(A review article on E. A. Nida's Customs and Cultures: ,4nthropology for Christian Missions, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1954).

Nida's Custonis and Cultures is an important book for all Christians who are concerned with human behavior, whether it be on the level of theology, ethics, social science, evangelism, or simply normal interpersonal and interdenominational relations within and without the Christian community. The book is addressed to Christian inissions in particular, but this apparently limited focus may be deceptive to the Christian whose interest in missions does not extend deeply into the principles and methodology of the "foreign" witness of the church. The book is important completely aside from its missionary slant. And lest my statements to that effect seem to be only the enthusiasm of another Christian interested in anthropology and its implications, it should be pointed out that the American Library Association selected it as one of the 50 outstanding religious books published during the twelve-month period for the year 1954-55.

The importance of Customs and Cultures stems from the relevance of anthropology to Christian thinking and from the fact that Nida has succeeded in demonstrating a segment of that relevance in a non-technical, rather popular style, yet with documentation (in the form of hundreds of fascinatingly-told illustrations) which is astounding in its volume, range, and scope. The "relevance" which Nida's book so well illustrates derives to a large degree from a viewpoint which is part of the framework of cultural anthropology. Anthropologists call it the "cross-cultural view." It is the understanding of human customary behavior in its actual setting, its local meaning, and its full range: its varieties over the earth, its differences through time, its distinctions among social strata. . Within the social sciences, for example, the "crosscultural view" has caused, among anthropologists, skepticism of some theories of behavior developed by social scientists who deal primarily with peoples of Europe and North America and who therefore formulate theories on the basis of a relatively small segment of human culture. To a theory that adolescence must be accompanied by emotional stress, an anthropologist found an answer that in Samoa (and other places) it didn't. To a theory such as one that insecurity always develops if a baby is cared for indiscriminately by a wide variety of individuals, the anthropologist comes back: "But in many societies. . ."

The Christian's knowledge of the range of human custom is as limited by his own background as is that of anvone else. This colors his views and distorts them. Ile may believe that all medicine men are clever rascals who deceive the innocent, that all peoples have a sense of guilt for sin, that democracy the best forin of government for all people. The cross-cultural view reveals that many of his tacit assumptions simply are not true. It should give an enlarged sense of proportion in respect to behavior. How much of our "Christian way of life" is simply our culture-a product of our history-with nothing really "Christian" about it? The question has been argued endlessly. The data are anthropological. Nida does not spend much time discussing this problem in the abstract, but some of the force of his cross-cultural perspective may be seen in the following quotation:

"The Tarahumaras of northern Mexico give the appearance of being quite calloused at death. They have no ceremonial mourning, bury the dead in shallow graves, and may not even announce the death until some later gathering of friends for a community fiesta. The present-day Aztec women in some regions engage in wild mourning, with shrieks of hysterical wailing, while they throw dust into the air and over themselves. The funeral may take place in a local Roman Catholic chapel and if the family has enough money a band may be hired. One such band in Morelos used to play 'Yes We Have No Bananas' and 'Happy Days are Here Again,' tunes learned from listening to phonograph records. The Igorots of Luzon in the Philippines seat the corpse in the open space beneath the stilt house and watch while it bloats and putrifies. The Thai may place the body in a coffin and keep it in the home for as long as one hundred days. The coffin is specially constructed with a vent to let off the odors and a spigot to drain off the liquids. At last the bones, which have been scraped of their flesh, are burned. Some Africans in northern Congo seize the widow and drag her about the village in a twisting path, shrieking and howling as they go-all for the purpose of confusing the ghost of the husband who may be trying to follow his wife to kill her.

"Such practices may seem both crude and foolish, but they are not much more so than ours: huge tracts of hideous stones in the centers of some of our cities (where we ought to have playgrounds for children), fancy coffins (required even when the body is to be cremated), laws, which in some states require that an amputated leg or arm be formally buried, or the practice in some parts of the western world of adding plaster-of-paris arms and legs to bodies which have previously lost a limb. We may laugh at the San Blas for taking food to the graves of the departed, but this seems no more strange to them than our practice of carrying flowers to cemeteries, We are appalled at the wealth buried with Egyptian monarchs, and at the number of slaves who were killed to accompany their ruler to the next world; but the cost of a beautiful coffin to people in our society, one's best suit of clothes, rings, a favorite tiepin, and flowers, plus perpetual care of a lot are proportinnately as expensive and in ways almost as pagan, certainly for those whose much avowed religious beliefs should contradict such practices." (pp. 166-7)

Some missionaries, to whom the book is primarily addressed, may feel that the greatest value for them in Nida's book is the discussion of various mission problems arising from human culture, and of various solutions which have been found to work in one part of the world or another. They may feel that the greatest practical value lies in the various conclusions of several of the chapters, where concrete suggestions are sometimes made.

Valuable as are these aspects of Custonis and Cultures, it is still in the implications of the view of culture in its meaning and extent that this book can contribute the most to individual missionaries, and through them to missions. It is by helping individuals develop a new outlook, a new attitude, a new set of reactions. As Nida himself says toward the end of his book:

"The most successful anthropolo&al and missionary methods of approach to non-Christian peoples have resulted not from theoretical formulations dreamed up in the isolation of one's study but from on-the-spot dealing with the complex, living situations. Anthropology may point out the nature of the problems and the possibilities of various solutions, but only the man at grips with the human factors involved can be expected to be successful in finding an adequate solution. The genuine sensitiveness to human needs has prepared many missionaries to be 'shockless' and objective in dealing with strange and personally abhorrent customs." (p. 262)

From the very first line the book aims at developing that "shocklessness"; "'But we are not going to have our wives dress like prostitutes,' protested an elder in the Ngbaka church in northern Congo, as he replied to the suggestion made by the missionary that the women should be made to wear blouses to cover their breasts." This first chapter is, in fact, named "Shocks and Surprises"; the emphasis on developing shocklessness through understanding continues steadily throughout the book. The following quotation is from the chapter on social culture:

"There is a tendency grossly to misjudge some aboriginal peoples for what appears to be vulgarity and lasciviousness in matters of sex. The typical Akha village in eastern Burma has the figures of a man and a woman at the gate to the village. Often these figures are placed in the position of coitus. This does not mean that the people. are crudely obscene in their attitudes. They are noi-except by our standards. As in the case of so many primitive peoples sex is regarded as one of the deeply religious mysteries, not to be covered up or disguised but to be recognized openly and to be revered in all its many manifestations. This, of course, is quite contrary to our puritanical tradition and is the source of much misunderstanding." (p. 129)

The understanding, the dispassionate view, the shocklessness," the insight which Customs and Cultures tries to promote does not lessen in the least the place of the miracle of redemption through Jesus Christ for all people in all cultures. "Some missionaries have been so 'conscious stricken' about past failures, have so dreaded any semblance of a superiority complex, and have so sincerely sought vital contacts with people, that they have not fully appreciated the revolutionary character of their ministry." (p. 254) Rather, it puts all culture in perspective, so that our own familiar ways of doing things, our vaunted "way of life" turns out to be no more and no less "pagan" than the equally cherished way of life of the Indian tribesman. Both are as filthy rags in the sight of God.

Nida has been preoccupied with the problems of anthropology and Christian missions for years. In his Bible Translating, printed in 1947 after having been developed in an earlier mimeographed edition, he said: "Almost every sentence of a translation will bear the mark of a translator's anthropological training. . ." In his function of Translations Secretary of the American Bible Society he has travelled particularly in Africa and Latin America, but in other areas of the world too, on trips ranging up to nine months or a year in duration, consulting closely with missionary translators on their stations. His skills as a linguist may have seemed the most obvious contribution he was making in many cases as he helped the missionary work out an adequate writing system for his language or helped analyze the tone system or worked out with the missionary the grammar of the verb system. But behind the mechanical details of linguistics lie was also working for something else-for getting the meaning of the Scriptures across in sharp, idiomatic style. for making sure that the translation really communicated the message.

Sounds and grammar in any language are rather mechanical, but meaning is as varied as life. And the life of the African is vastly different from the life of either the American missionary or the life of Bible times. Communicating means getting the message, which was delivered to Bible cultures and which was transmitted by the missionary of Western culture, deeply into the understanding of peoples of African, Asian or Latin American cultures. Adequate communication, then, means the sympathetic understanding of all of these (remembering, too, that the Bible represents several cultures).

Of course many missionaries have such an awareness to varying degrees, whether they are formally educated in anthropology or not. This Nida recognizes, as in the quotation from page 262, above. In many, however, this awareness is very slight. Then both the Bible and the African (or his Asian or Latin American counterpart) are interpreted largely through the eyes of the modern Western world, or in terms of the particular religious sub-culture of it which the missionary represents. In Bible translating this lack of awareness is often reflected in literalism of translation so that in some cases the Biblical figure of beat ing the breast (which the people of Bible cultures understood as a sign of remorse and humility) is carried over literally to the African who understands by it boastfulness and pride. "Awareness" would have found that the African counterpart, in many areas, is to beat the head.

This type of thing Nida has documented at great length in Bible Translating and God's Word in Man's Language. It crops tip again in Custonts and Cultures, but the latter book goes on into the whole problem of missionary attitudes and understandings, whether they directly impinge on the translation of the Bible or not. Comparatively few missionaries translate the Bible, but all are faced with the problem of culture and of the barrier of their own attitudes, whether they realize it or not.

"Some missionaries make it a practice not to shake hands with 'natives' if there are any whites around, and they object seriously to having 'natives' in for tea or refreshments. The feeling is that the indigenous peoples will not know their place if they are given too many privileges. As one missionary expressed it, 'We once invited one young fellow in for tea, and from then on he thought he ran the mission.' The obvious mistake was that only one person was invited and that it happened only once." (p. 67)

Something of the organization of Nida's book may be seen from its chapter headings. "Shocks and Surprises" (i.e., peoples are all different in their customs and outlook), "Rhyme and Reason" (the custonis of people serve a function and have meaning. Anthropology is the study of cultures), "Race and Ranting" (the true nature of race and race prejudice), "Hoes and Headaches" (iriaterial culture), "Friends and Frustrations" (social culture), "Devils and Doubts" (religious culture), "Drums and Drama" (aesthetic culture), "Queer Sounds, Strange Grammars, and Unexpected Meanings" (language), "Old Customs and New Ways" (culture change) "New Solutions to Old Problems,"

It covers, then, most of the typical topics of a standard treatment of cultural anthropology, but it is not a text. It is rather the exposition of a viewpoint through discussion and illustration. Technical vocabu lary is kept at a minimum and, when introduced, is defined in non-technical fashion. The astonishing stock of stories about specific peoples and problems carries the message of the book. The anthropological theory underlying the book is extensive but does not obtrude itself. The reader, when he agrees with the author or is convinced by him, is likely to feel, "Why this is only common sense." The book runs, at points, counter to many of the basic assumptions of typical Americans, including typical missionaries; but these assumptions are treated in the effective way in which only someone with a cross-cultural viewpoint can treat them,

Customs and Cultures should be read without exception by every missionary and every would-be missionary. It should be one of the top requirements in the training of missionaries. It should also, be read by all other Christian leaders and Christian leaders in training. If the non-missionary reader does 'not see its relevance to him and its implications for his outlook, perhaps he needs it most of all.

Customs and Cultures is absorbing reading. The reader may be annoyed at times by a slight repetitiousness, but even that probably has its pedagogical value. It will open up entirely new trends of thought for many. It will entertain as it enlightens. It will be stuccessful in the measure that it helps us see others as they see themselves and helps us see ourselves as others see us. Nida closes with these words: "However, what is even more important than revised programs and new strategies is an all-embracing consciousness of the reality of God and our own cultural inadequacy. The power of Jesus Christ working through His consecrated and teachable servants can sanctify all of life to the glory of God." It is in teaching those "teachable servants" about our "cultural inadequacy" and about the way in which God does sanctify for His glory cultural forms which seem barbarous and ludicrous to our limited cultural viewpoint that this book makes so great a contribution.

August 24, 1955