Science in Christian Perspective



The Cultures of Man and the 
Communication of the Gospel*


From JASA 10 (December 1958): 8-13

The problem of "The cultures of Man and the Communication of the Gospel" is as old as the history of God's dealing with mankind, if we assume that man has had culture ever since God began to communicate with him. We have a long history of a part of the problem in our Scriptures. This history takes some odd turns-odd to us that is, in the light of our own culture and in the light of the more common acts of communication in the Bible. In the Bible we find peculiar acts of revelation as when God commanded Hosea to marry a temple prostitute, or Abraham to sacrifice his son, or, strangest of them all (as C. S. Lewis puts it), when God was nursed by a peasant woman in a Bethlehem stable and died as a criminal thirty-three years later.

On the other hand, some of the turns which this communication took in the Biblical record are not so strange to us, but vXre highly revolutionary to the people to whom they first came. Such was Peter's vision when he was told to eat animals which were repulsively unclean to Jews, and such was the whole ministry of Paul, or Peter-(and of the Holy Spirit) -among the Gentiles, in the eyes of those Judaizers, among the Jewish Christians. The preaching of the gospel turned the Hellenistic world upside down.

Part of the tragedy of modern missions, however,

* Paper presented at the Twelfth Annual 0onventlon of the American Scientific Affiliation, Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, August, 1957.

is that in our narrow ethnocentrism we refuse to allow the Spirit of God that liberty that has always been His prerogative in dealing with men. We bind Him to what is right and proper in our own eyes-and our field of vision is sharply constricted to a narrow slit by the tightly-strapped blinders of the habits which our culture bequeaths us.

It is hard to illustrate this point, because we have only history to study. We do not know what might have been. Let us try, anyhow, if we can loosen our blinders enough to see something of how other people look at things.

One of the major forms of communication in Africa is the dance. Africans dance to gain power and to appease the dead, to celebrate, and to mourn. They seem to us to dance for any excuse whatsoever, and if there is no excuse they dance for the fun of it. Last April in the Camerouns I was riding with Dr. William Reyburn through a village in the evening just as the moon was coming up. We heard drumbeats-and believe me, I know of little else that has the fascination of the intricate, complicated rhythms of African drums on a moonlight night. We stopped and walked to the open square where young men were tapping out the beat. A few others were beginning to get itchy in their feet. A couple of fellows were trying out a few steps (Africans dance individually, of course, and not in the Western manner of ballroom dancing). We asked what was going on. The bystanders were delighted with our interest and told us that a woman had been buried a year before, the period of mourning was over, and now the family was about to celebrate.

We did not stay to see the celebration because supper was waiting for us at the Reybunis' home. But that evening we again heard drums, this time down over the hill from the mission station in the quarters where teachers and students lived. The Revburns and I rushed down, and this time the dance was a game. The fellows were in a circle, dancing and singing. while one in the center acted the fool to make the others laugh. He would then point to someone in the circle who would take his place and try to outdo the previous dancer.

Along with these and many other functions of the dance in Africa is its relation to drama and to other forms of communication. The dance is a major instrument by which Africans transmit values, ideals, emotions, and even history. It is a medium which the African understands. But more than once the African has been rebuffed by the missionary when he attempted to worship God in dance---or, for that matter, even to tell the Good News in this most natural form of communication. For example, a foreigner, an important church lady, was visiting the mission and church. Because it was a lady visitor the African women of the area wanted to put on something very special for her, and so they worked out a dance-drama in which they portrayed the history of their contacts with Christianity. This was to be an expression of their appreciation for the fact that the missionaries had come to them,

They started out by portraying themselves naked bunch of leaves in front and another behind as their only clothing. This is the way they often dress in the fields and in out-of-the-way places where they are not likely to be seen by outsiders. Then the missionaries came. There was an elaborate, intricate story unfolding and quickening in tempo until they ended tip by going to church in their brightest-colored new cotton finery.

But the sight of these African women-nearly naked-dancing so enthusiastically, their whole bodies jouncing with every violent step, and their breasts flapping, was too much for the visitor. She berated them for this "heathen" display, unworthy of Christians. Unfortunately, a missionary who should have known better interpreted for her. The poor Christian women were stunned, hurt, crestfallen, ashamed. This offering of thanks, this testimony of their gratitude to God and the missionaries, this act of worship-far more real, far more deeply felt than most of our perfunctory acts of worship-had been so cruelly rejected by the distinguished visitor.

Fortunately, this sort of thing has not always been the case. There have been instances of missionaries who have been perceptive to the power and function of African dance and drama in communication, and who have encouraged them to splendid advantage. But let us go on to another illustration of the limitations which we put on the Holy Spirit because of the narrow outlook defined for us by our culture.

I am referring to the problem of polygamy. I think it is safe to say that most missionaries have condemned polygamy in one way or another. In some areas some rather bizarre rulings are made. A man can be a Christian (because he has been reconciled to God through faith in Christ) but not a church member (because be has more than one wife) ; his wives, on the other hand, may be both Christians and church members because they have only one husband! Some missionaries require that the husband relinquish all wives but the first. If the husband does this legally, it is divorce, (something to which the missionary is also opposed), and if he does not do it legally it is desertion without support in the eyes of the community and in actual fact.

But the biggest problem in our understanding what is really involved here is the tremendous difference in emotional attitude toward plural marriage on the part of the African and on our own part. Except for the objective fact that a man has more than one wife. we are not talking about the same thing at all. What does plural marriage conjur up to us? With our heightened emotional orientation toward sex, we think of it in sexual terms (here is a man who is not satisfied with one sex partner). It strikes us as being illicit. abnormal, subhuman, revolting-even something on the level of homosexuality. Perhaps some of you have heard remarks made about Mormons of the past.

But how does the African feel about it? He may have been told it is wrong, and may accept what he has been told, just as he accepts much of what the missionaries tell him and parrots it back. He may see the genuine difficulties in it, but what does he feel? To him (and to his wife or wives, and to his children) polygamy means not sex but security, comfort, respect. It means having the community look up to him. It means a family large enough to work the farm and still take care of the household needs and the children. It means many children-and many children are an African's great pride and comfort. It means not abnormality. but the good life. Not illicitness, but morality.

In many parts of Africa it is immoral to have sexual relations with a woman who is nursing a child. Relatively prolonged nursing is essential on a continent without the services of Gerber's prepared baby foods. Plural marriage is an important safeguard to morality, and the common missionary pattern of many small children of the same mother may be really shocking-proof of immorality in the African eyes.

Perhaps we can make the point by taking a contrasting situation in our own culture. We have been told that materialism is wrong. We believe it. We have heard that it is a sin. We agree. But somehow we do not feel it. We say that all sin is sin in God's sight, but this sin does not hold a candle to rape, murder, theft, or even gossip, so far as we are concerned. I am buying a house. The money I spend each month in payments to the bank would support a whole village of Khmu people in Laos where I was a missionary. I do not consider that house big. It has five rooms, including the kitchen. I spend a lot of time thinking about that house. I read magazines about fixing up houses. I am buying several items for my home on the installment plan. I spent most of my vacation this summer fixing up the house and yard.

I also have a seven year old Plymouth which works perfectly well, but I feel as though I would like a newer car, and I presume that before long I shall be looking around for one, even though I do not have any money.

Even though I am a Christian and believe with all my heart in full commitment to Christ, I am a materialist and spend a large part of my time and energy on material things. It somehow seems normal, respectable; it means security, a proper home for my family. I would feel that I were failing them if I could not provide them with a good part of this.

This is how much of Africa feels about plural marriage. Two wives in every household to them is symbolically something like two cars in every garage to us. The difference is that we can sell the second car without any serious injustice to the car or the community. The divorcing of wives is no such small matter.

We have been trying to illustrate the statement that the Holy Spirit is more bold to deal with men on their own cultural level than we are. In fact, more than one missionary has refused to translate the Old Testament because he did not want to have people read about David dancing before the Lord,' or the Lord slaying Onan because he refused to have sexual intercourse with his brother's wife (so that his brother would legally have children),2 or Nathan quoting the lord, "Thus saith the Lord . . . 'I gave you ... your master's wives into your bosom."3

But in spite of the mistakes of His human instruments, God has from His first dealings with men chosen this incarnational form of communication. He has encoded His infinite message in the finite human codes of human cultures and human languages. In His supreme act of communication God encoded Himself as a human being from birth to death. In doing so He had to select one race from the many races of earth, one culture from many cultures, one language from the many languages. Our difficulty comes when we try to identify that race, that culture, that language with the message to be conveyed. We should think of it instead as the semaphore.

God's incarnational means of communication is not restricted to that single, supreme, historic Incarnation alone. From the beginning, God's message has come to men through the code of their language and culture. As the Holy Spirit indwells the messenger and as he expresses the gospel in language and life, the message is once more incarnate, encoded in human forms. Of course, there are many differences between these many encodings of the message and that one supreme one which we call Incarnation. We are not Christ. But more than this, where God was encoded in Christ Jesus he was encoded in Jewish code, Jewish culture the culture of the people to whom the message came. But, when the Good News is encoded in us as missionaries it is encoded in our culture much more than in the culture of the people to whom we are the bearers of the message. It is what the gospel means to us that we are preaching. It is the implication of God's word in our value system on which we dwell. This is a fundamental difference between most of the acts of communication recorded in Scripture and those of the modern missionary movement.

There have been a few notable exceptions to this. Like the Apostle Paul, who was bicultural and bridged the cultural gap between the Jewish world and the Hellenistic world of his day, there have been national Christian leaders who have interpreted the message to their own people in their own terms. There have been many such. But I am speaking of that movement we call missionary-that breed of cultural expatriates of which I am one, that host of men and women who pack up their values as well as their refrigerators in their outfit and preach the great American cultural doctrines of rugged individualism, profit motive, materialism, and the atomization of society-in the name of that indigent prophet who had nowhere to lay his head.

But this is the way God chose to do it. He chose to have the Good News spread from person to person, from culture to culture, from generation to generation in a span from Adam to us, in spite of the bewildering array of cultural forms, of languages, of value sysems in which it has had to be encoded.

That really places on the thoughtful missionary an obligation to think seriously about the question of what is cultural form in Christianity (that is, what is the normal product of this enco4ing of the message, this incarnation of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people in a society), on the one hand, and what is supercultural (what transcends all cultures and all time), on the other. And while he is deciding that, he must also decide how he can communicate that supercultural faith in terms of the culture to which he is ministering rather than in terms of his own, just as Jesus did. And the Christian leader in any society, including our own, must decide how to interpret that which comes in a foreign cultural garb, such as that of the Scriptures, in terms of the society of which he is a part.

Of course, there have been manv scholars who have thought profoundly about these problems. Many theologians have done so. But, as an anthropologist who is relatively illiterate in theology. I would like. nevertheless, to pass along the observation that it Seems to be those Christian thinkers who are also missionaries who best come to grips with this problem. I am thinking of such splendid Christian scholars of the ecumenical movement as Hendrick Kraemer and Lessfie Newbegin. And it seems to me, also, that other, non-missionary, theologians within the ecumenical movement have been forced to give attention to these problems by the very nature of their attempt at ecumenical intercourse.

There have been many missionaries who. to one degree or another, have worked out their own combination of practical theology and applied anthropology as they have wrestled with the problem of preaching the gospel to their neighbors. Some have become outstanding, serious anthropologists who have made important contributions of theory and factual information to the field. Such, for example, are Edwin Smith of England and Maurice Leenhardt of France. We do not have their counterparts in the United States. This does not mean that American missionaries have not also wrestled with the problem, but they have not risen to make the same great contributions to anthropology as a result.

In the United States, however, there is a movement which is typically American. Instead of rnoving from missions to theology and anthropology it moves from anthropology to missions, and then in some cases on to theology. What is so typically American about it is that it is a technological approach. It got a major part of its original impetus from the important attempt of the Summer Institute of Linguistics to apply structural linguistic science (which is a specialized branch of anthropology ) to the missionary problems of reducing languages to writing for the purpose of translating the Bible. There are probably at least a thousand individuals who as missionaries have done linguistic analysis in their missionary work. . Some of these know far more about linguistics than they do about theology or about the Bible they are translating. A few have risen to prominent place as linguists in this country. More than a dozen have their Ph.D.'s from. departments of linguistics or anthropology, and an equal number, I would judge, are close to it. Thus the technology of linguistics is being applied to the mission situation. 

The majority of imissionarv "linguists" are purely technicians, and they are applying techniques of language analysis more or less by rote. There have been, however, during the course of this development, others who have begun to face up to the problems of communication, which are cultural as well as linguistic. These, while still using their linguistic techniques, have become interested also in cultural dynamics and have been looking thoughtfully into cultural anthropology.

Concurrently, at Wheaton College, at the Kennedy School of Missions, and at other Christian institutions there have been courses in anthropology, and new individuals have gone into anthropology there and at universities. This small group of people, some of them missionaries and others not, anthropologically oriented by training, Christians by conviction, has found its principal leadership in Eugene A. Nida of the American Bible Societv. It finds its voice principally in a little journal, Practical Anthropoloyv, wbich appears six times a year.4

The people who best illustrate what is being done in this field are Dr. and Mrs. William D. Reyburn. Mrs. Reyburn is the former Marie Fetzer, coauthor with me of the anthropology chapter in the second edition of the ASA symposium, Modern Science and Christian Faith. Dr. Reyburn is a Ph.D in linguistics turned cultural anthropologist. He is doing the most perceptive, creative work in this field of action anthropology in missions of anyone I know.

The Reyburns have been in the French Camerouns of West Africa for about a year. Before that they were in Latin America for several years. In Latin America they worked on several "trouble-shooting" assignments where missionary work had bogged down in one way or another, and they performed their assignments with brilliant success, as will be seen below. 'Now, their project is the organizing and developing of an adequate Bible translation program among the several languages of the southern Camerouns. This is a pr ogram in which Africans almost exclusively are employed as translators tinder the Reyburns' supervision. Bv telling you about the Reyburns' work I think that we can illustrate some of the basic features of this anthropological approach to this age-old problem of the cultures of man and the communication of the gospel.

Dr. Reyburn's career has been spent, for the most part, living in out-of-the-way villages on a very simple scale-not just because it is necessary for his work, but because he would rather be that way. The Bulu people of a village in the Cainerouns tell delightedly about how Dr. Reyburn would sit in the men's palaver house with all the other men, and how his wife would bring him his dinner just like all the other wives. Never had a foreigner joined in their activities like this before. Mrs. Reyburn was pregnant, and these foreigners were forever stumbling into pregnancy taboos-learning about them the hard way-often unwittingly violating them.

Once. when there were wild elephants in the vicinity, the village met to decide who would go out and shoot an elephant with Dr. Reyburn's gun. He could not go because his wife was expecting and that made the elephants taboo to him. As he said when he wrote up the account in Practical Anthropology, "I wandered into the ... palaver house ... and found out that the speeches were about whether or not 'our family' was going to lend 'our' rifle to get an elephant for our village .... I sat tight and tried to forget that I was W. D. Reyburn and remember that I am supposed to act like Obam Nna now."5

When he was in the Andean area of Latin America, he used to dress tip as a half-breed. a cholo, with a big hat, several days' growth of beard. and a large poncho. With an Indian and a burro he would trudge the mountains, playing the role of the lowest class of society and receiving the status that such a class occupies. He would sit among the Indian., in the market place and hear their complaints. their bitter, bitter cursing of the landowners. He said you cannot imagine what it is like to be cursed as a cholo, as the scum of the earth, to have people who always maintain a barrier of respect to the tipper classes talk to you as an equal.

At night they would put up at an inn along the way. These inns were for such people. For next to nothing they could get a supper, feed their animals, huddle by the fire, and sleep under a shelter. In the evening, as everyone would be around the fires talking, Dr. Reyburn would pull his poncho up over his head as he crouched in a sitting position'. pretending to be asleep. With his flashlight under his chin, he would take notes on the day's activities and on the conversations around him.

Sometimes he was caught. One night, without saying a single word, he walked into the inn courtyard in the darkness, took his place by the fire, and started to cook supper, when out of the darkness came a voice: "Senor, why are you traveling with that Indian?" Dr. Reyburn does not know what gave him away. It must have been something about his walk or some gesture or other. He had to learn to slink along city streets in a manner befitting a cholo in the presence of his betters.

Another time, he slipped out of role when, on a very hot day, he bought a cheap bottle of soda from a wayside vendor. The vendor looked at him suspiciosly. "Why don't you take a bus?" he said. But often Dr. Reyburn got away with it, and it was for him an avenue into an understanding of the thoughts and aspirations, the fears and hatreds, the values of the ordinary people who are taciturn, uncommunicative, hostile, suspicious of everybody outside their own small world. When Dr. Reyburn was asked to go to Africa for his present assignment, one of his great regrets was, "I can't be a cholo in Africa,"

But there in Africa, too, he is finding new avenues of contact with people. Actually, it is not as difficult where he is now, because the people are outgoing, friendly, willing to accept him. But in either case, the point I am emphasizing is that he wants the companionship of people, wants to understand them, it takes them a part of his life-so different from the u sual missionary who very effectively insulates himself from those around him.

Dr. Reyburn's unusually fine sense of cultural dynamics, of the ways in which societies operate, their stresses and strains, their consistencies and conflicts, their stabilities and changes, and the relation of Christian faith to all of this, may be seen in much of his writing.

The fullest single published example of this is the small monograph The Toba Indians of the Argentine Chaco.6 It tells an utterly fascinating story. The Tobas are a tribe of Indians who have undergone extensive culture chanue due to the inroads of Latin-American culture in the form carried by their mixed SpanishIndian neighbors. One of the important innovations which has come into Toba life is Pentecostal Christianity. Here I quote from Dr. Reyburn:

The past fifteen or twenty years have seen a phenomenal spread of this expression of Christianity in Argentina, Chile and Brazil. Its growth has outstripped anything dreamed by Protestants in Latin America. For the most part it embraced the poorer classes of people and has divided, split, fused, and fragmented; and with each division it has been self-developing, facing its problems without the inhibitions of preconceived rnissionary methods and ideals. While it is not an ideal movement to many, the overwhelming fact remains that it is "movement" and has proclaimed the gospel in a prodigious fashion. The international Pentecostal moyement is dominated by no ecclesiastical authority laying its plans in a systematic step-by-step procedure. It is characterized by a strong emphasis on gospel preaching and the visible manifestations of the Holy Spirit. These manifestations are not everywhere the same, a common point of dissension among these churches. It is largely unconcerned with the relation of Christianity to culture. It places a strong emphasis on healing the sick by prayer and anointing with oil. Tt likewise uses whatever musical mediums are available as an integral part of its worship services. Such is the form of Christianity which came to the Toba. It did not come by Pentecostal missionaries going out and living with the Tobas and learning their language. Rather, the Tobas went to it in the cities along the Parana River. They heard the gospel preached and experienced the Pentecostal cultus. Those who heard began to preach among their own people. The results: Pentecostalism soon sounded a new kev for the lives of several thousand Toba Indians.7

The missionaries living in the Toba area were not Pentecostals, but Mennonites. And here two different value systems were put in contrast. Pentecostalism fitted the Toba way. It was strong on group participation, emotional, identification, sharing, and dramatic ritual. The missionaries were sober, individualistic, reserved, hard-working, thrifty, and staid.

Like most culture-blinded missionaries everywhere, these missionaries reacted to Toba Christianity in terms of their own value systems, and did not like it. They could not understand it, and had no fellowship with it. With all the talk we do in missionary circles about an "Indigenous church," the fact is that when one shows up we usually do not like it. We do not like it because if it is indigenous to another culture, it is not like we are, and we do not understand it.

After a visit by Dr. Nida into this complex situation, and at his suggestion, the Reyburns were invited in. They moved into a Toba community and started studyin,- the language, writing a grammar of it, preparing literacy materials, and giving the mission guidance into the beginning of a literacy-literature program At the same time, the Reyburns were studying the Tobas themselves-their ways of doing things, their ways of organizing life, and of interpreting life. They also studied the nature and function of Christianity among them.

Then began a long series of discussions between the missionaries and the Reyburns as they worked through some of the problems together. Dr. Reyburn was able to unfold to them the basic characteristics of Toba behavior and to point out their implications in Toba Christianity. A role for the missionary in this situation was gradually developed. I cannot go into detail: the report is available. But I would like to quote a few lines from what Albert Buchwalter , of that mission, has written:

We are now committed to an appreciation of Toba culture. Therefore, we no lon.-er attempt to force the Toba intothe Western materialistic mold which seemed to us, unfortunately, to be the most Christian way of life. Furthermore, we are committed to a willingness to work within the framework of piety of the indigenous expression of Christianity . . . We will no longer expect the Toba Christians to approximate "good North American Mennonites," but we will do our best to give them the Word of God in an understandable form . . .

One of my colleagues refers to that day as Victory Toba Day when we as a staff sat down and together outlined the principles to guide our new approach. In God's sight, the Toba believer is just as acceptable as anyone else who has come to Him. What right have I to make the message of life difficult to grasp by dragging in my own culture trappings and giving them divine sanction?

God bless the Tobas, and God bless the Reyburns. I now have a burning desire to give my all to the Toba Church in a way that is intelligible to them. Before, I could see nothing but frustration and futility; now, it is limitless possibilities for God. Before, it was wishing to get away from it all; now, it is a desire to be right there taking part in what God's Spirit is so marvelously doing.8

What is the purpose of such culturological Investigation as Dr. Reyburn makes? Clearly the reason is that of all science. It is to know, and to understand. As Christians and as anthropologists we are searching for an understanding of culture and of society as the gospel is communicated there.

And, like most other science, it has its by-products. This knowledge, this glimmering of culture and of communication, helps us to strip off our blinders (or maybe I should say open them wider) and makes us able to see the Holy spirit moving in other milieux than our own. It enables us to co-operate in His movement by staying out of the way, for one thing, and by actively seeking those forms of communication which are revelant in the new situation. It helps us to have fellowship once more with our brethren. As we realize that the Holy Spirit works as fully through their culture forms to make them children of God as through ours, the realization finally comes that all culture is as filthy rags-yes, even ours! And we stand before the Incarnate Son of God naked, ashamed, repentant that we have substituted these tatters for bread and have passed them out in His name to the ends of the earth. We stop amazed, and supremely grateful, that the Holy Spirit worked in spite of us and through us anyhow. The Church around the world is often festooned in a bizarre way by these unlovely rags, but the Church is there. We resolve that the God whose means of communication through His Spirit was to encode His message in us will not so often find us in the way of His encoding it again in the lives of others.

Bibliography and Footnotes

1 2 Samuel 6:16.
2 Genesis 38:8-10.
3 2 Samuel 12:7-8.
4 The editors will be glad to see that sample copies are sent to anvone who may be interested in subscribing and who will send his name and address to Practical Anthropology, Box 307. Tarrytown, N. Y.
5 Reyburn, William D.: "Life in an African Village," Practical Anthropology, Vol. 4, No, 1 (Jan.-Feb. 1957) p. 10.
6 Published in 1954 by The Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, 1711 Prairie St.. Elkhart, Ind.
7 Ibid., pp. 44-5.
8 Buchwalter, Albert: "Victory Toba Day," Practical Inthropology, Vol. 2, No. 5 (Sept.-Oct. 1955), pp. 137-8.