Science in Christian Perspective



Christianity and Culture II. Incarnation in a Culture
Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc.
Dallas, Texas 75236

From: JASA 31 (June 1979): 92-96.

Jesus was incarnate in a human body; incarnate in a human mind; and incarnate in a human specific culture. His beard-cut undoubtedly followed the local custom. His robe was of local pattern. His weeping was in local good taste. He walked with sandals; ate no pork; discussed local philosophical chestnuts; grew up within a kinship structure; planed lumber; and chose to die like a local criminal accused by the establishment. His incarnation in body is discussed frequently; His incarnation in culture, seldom.

He was courteous by their cultural criteria. He followed-with rare exceptions-the grass-roots local rule system. And His speech was incarnate in a local, low prestige dialect-that of Galileenot that of Jerusalem. And when Peter was accused of being one of "his crowd," it was this local dialect which marked him off. I once wrote a little poem about it.

Thy Speech Betrayeth Thee

How can I tell who you are? 
Every idle word marks your track with private scent. 
Every vowel, every tone, every gives a trace of your origin and your bent from afar.

Clues to cronies and your works are wrapped up in accent chirps 
Little Bird! 
Don't you try to fly-
just deny and squawk and cry
(and be prepared to die Little Bird).

Character will out 
just as softly 
and as loudly 
as you shout 
or pout.

In Mark My Words (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971:107-08)

Cultural Ideals Fulfilled in Christ

Every culture has ideals which are positive (not merely a conscience against the bad). And God, as I hear Him speak to us in the Word, is in sympathy with these ideals, supports them; and we know that ultimately He is the source of these good things, since "every good endowment and every perfect gift" (James 1:17 RSV) is from the Father of lights-whether it comes by way of a genetic endowment, or from a cultural one. Good hopes, good dreams of helpful life, good aims incarnate in a culture have this as their point of origin.

For this reason, therefore, we conclude that Christ can meet, on their own terms, the good ideals of every culture. He can fulfill these dreams first in Himself, incarnating them as fulfilled in Himself, and eventually He can help the good dreams to he incarnated in us and, then, in our resurrection bodies when we are conformed to His image. And meanwhile, he can show men of all cultures that it is possible to approach toward their own ideals better by His strength and by His will infused in them. He thus fulfills their need, their moral longing, rather than tossing away this genuine but incomplete moral knowledge.

The Christian as a Model

Their wistfulness to be good, according to criteria which are related to God's absolute character, is involved in drawing men to him. As part of the process, men are supposed to see us, and wish to imitate usand are supposed to find in us an early approximation of that character of God which they wistfully wish for in themselves. With Paul we must he able to say, as he said repeatedly (II Thess. 3:7, 3:9, Phil, 3:17, I Cor. 4:16), "imitate me," as I imitate Christ, except for that residual mess which still binds us all. "We are on the way," we must he able to say, "come along!" By this criterion, they must he able to want to follow-not in our academies, not in our politics, not in our role or jobs in society, but in our path toward being conformed to Him.

Cultural Blocks to a Message

This cannot he seen readily across some cultural barriers. The signs of character can he culturally misread unless there is cultural incarnation by us into their system; i.e. unless we translate our actions into patterns which they can understand. But here are two problems:

First, we are still sinners. People can see that. Fortunately, however, by-standers watching a stutterer can see in some mysterious fashion that the "real" message does not include the stutter part; and in a profession, plus an attempt with partial success, people can to some extent differentiate the moral stuttering from the effort and from the general direction, and start on the same narrow path.

Second, however, some cultural differences can temporarily block a message. Attempts at friendliness may appear as being ton forward. Or cultural bits may trigger wrong understanding, or may block understanding. For example, in a simple instance where life or death but no moral issue was involved, I heard that two of my colleagues of the Summer Institute of Linguistics were walking at night in northern Australia, where there are deadly snakes. One of the aborigines suddenly shouted out a warning: "Jump east!"-but which was east? There they had no word-no translation directly-for "left" or "right," they went by the compass (though having no compass!). "Doctor," they would on occasion say, "my south ear hurts;" or "Take the north cookie, it is nicer." (The universe may be more stable this way I suppose-it does not "revolve" with us when we turn! But for those of us who have not been taught directions this way by our culture, their warning may be missed.)

More puzzling was the reaction of Chief Tariri (whom I have mentioned before) when two S.I.L. women first were introduced to him. He thought that they "laughed in his face" and "tried to throw him to the ground." (Dangerous practices when dealing with a man used to taking heads!) Why? Cultural miscues, undoubtedly. My hunch: the women had been taught that they should be friendly to people in Latin America, to smile and to shake hands. But this was a jungle Indian culture, not Latin. And in some Indian areas a greeting may include a bow plus the lightest of touching of the hands-where a "warm handshake" involving unexpectedly heavy pumping could threaten to throw one off balance-either physically or socially. Furthermore, the kind of smile which is appropriate may be culturally conditioned. In Australia, for example, when greeting someone the lips often remain closed at the sides, and the cheeks crease close to the lips; when I have pointed out to Australian women that I could often guess whether pictures for ads in the magazines were taken there or in the U.S.A., because of the broad smile on the face of the American women, they replied: "Yes, it looks like a toothpaste advertisement." If such

There are universals of kindness and of courtesy which need translation-incarnation-into (emically patterned) cultural molds.

had been the case with Ta 'in when meeting the two friendly, smiling North American girls for the first time, he could have taken a "friendly smile" for a guffaw at his expense. Messages to he quickly and easily effective, then, must be culturally incarnate.

Universals of the Good Neighbor

Fortunately, there is something universal about friendship, something genetically transmitted which is deeper than culture, something which underlies kindly human relations in all cultures. And the evidences of individual kindness gradually filter across cultural and language barriers. Kindness is a universally recognized quality, given time; a kindly person speaking the language badly will eventually communicate more of the love of God than a harsh person who has the proper consonants. But just as in Part I we pointed out that there are universals of conscience which have variable manifestations, so here there are universals of kindness and of courtesy which need translation-incarnation-into (emically patterned) cultural molds.

By the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:2537) Jesus captured such a generalization about the universality of kindness. Philosophical argument could dispute definitions of it; His parable incarnated it in an irresistalble situation, This was a function of His parables; they forced attention to the incarnation of principles, where perception of their force could not he interrupted by sophisticated verbal blockade. The good neighbor is also the kind that a man wants to have when he himself must leave home, and wants someone near there who will take care of his wife, his children, and his riches. He wants that man to be honest. Yet I have seen the wish fail. My chief translation helper of the Mixtec New Testament, leaving home to work with me for a while, had some goods stolen by the close friend who was to watch them.

The Anti-Neighbor

Thus far 1 have been implying that in some sense there is a universal good neighbor, a universal ideal man (with etic variability around local emic structures). But one major difficulty with the suggestion most be met before we can feel at all comfortable with it, or use it as a basis for further encouragement as we seek to enter into other cultures, If we were to ask a person what he wants to be, he might answer in a way that suggests that he does not at all want to be kindly, or to be a good neighbor. It may be that he wants to dooiinatc others. This is not the ideal neighbor-it is the ideal tyrant. And in a certain sense this is indeed the wish of all fallen men, i.e., of all of us. Even the disciples felt this way, and had to be taught that it was undesirable: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you" (Matt. 20:25-26). Among the Gentiles, these kings are called "benefactors" by the dominated ones (Luke 22:25). (How startled I was some years ago to land in Trujillo's capitol, only to be given an official pamphlet lauding him as "benefactor"-what an unexpected confirmation of human nature in literal terms!)

The Christian church is not exempt from such heady dreams. Diotrephes liked to "put himself first" (III John 9, 10), did not acknowledge the authority of John, and put men out of the church who did not follow his wish. But Paul taught us that to be like Christ we must not seek equality with Greatness (Phil. 2:6). And the urge for power through wealth, or status through position, or pride of place through role, or through dress, or high friendships, or smooth words, may trap us all, win or lose, succeed or fail. The particular individual emic structure of power-search may vary, but the underlying bad dream may persist.

How can we reconcile this (had) desire for domination with the claim that there is a good ideal in all cultures? We must admit that there are clashing ideals: the clash between the ideal of the good neighbor versus the ideal of the man who for pride wants bigger farms at someone else's expense. My conviction: all men (with a few possible exceptions) have an underlying wistfulness to he good which may he deliberately overridden and ignored under the competing desire for dominance. (Even Judas, at the end, "repented and brought hack the thirty pieces of silver . . . saying 'I have sinned'" (Matt. 27:3, 4).

Hidden Wistfulness Towards Goodness

I think of this hidden wistfulness, this ignored wish, as something like the green in the trees in Ann Arbor, before the maples have turned red, To turn the leaves red takes a chemical change. To turn them yellow, you have only to have the green chlorophyll decay; then the yellow which was already there becomes visible. I think that the moral structure is perhaps something like that. I have been told that a dying man, knowing he is dying, who confesses to a crime, is almost certainly telling the truth about it. Why? My hunch is that his wistfulness to be good had been overridden by the lust for safety and power. This wistfulness to be decent to his friends-rather than letting them be its jail for his crime is overwhelmed by the "chlorophyll of power madness." But when the power madness cannot work, when he is dying, and can no longer hope for power or find gain in safety, when he can no longer be put into jail, the wistfulness to be good shows up, and he may confess to that which has damaged his friend.

Christ as Competitive with Contrastive Cultural Ideals

But we return now to the claim that Jesus can compete with and best any man with his own weapons. This applies whether it relates to competition towards dominance, or competition towards meeting ideals of neighborliness. If it is via dominance that one wishes to issue a challenge, one can hear the message to Senacharib: "The virgin daughter of Zion-she wags her head behind you ... whom you have mocked . . . have You not heard, that I determined it long ago . . . I will put my hook in your nose, and my bridle in your month, and I will turn you hack on the way by which you came" (II Kings 19:20-22); here we see that God
refuses to allow evil forces, in the long run, to win by dominating tactics. If the social ideal is meekness or pacifism, however, Jesus shows through competitively as the meek one who "opened not his mouth" (Isa. 53:7) in threatening, under the killing attack. Societies differ in their degree of aggressiveness or meekness. But in each instance, in some sense Christ is The Competing One relative to the good-neighbor ideals of that culture or to their negative dominating "anti" ideals.

This holds, whether it refers to small ethnic communities, or to very large ones. Thus, Ruth Benedict a generation or more ago (in Patterns of Culture, [19341 1946 Pelican Books, New York), emphasized that the Zuni "value sobriety and in offensiveness above all other virtues" (54), so that the fact "that white parents use [whipping] in punishment is a matter for unending amazement" to them (63); and "The ideal man in Zuni is a person of dignity and affability who has never fried to lead," and "Even in contests of skill like their foot races, if a man wins habitually he is debarred from running" (90).

On the other hand, on the northwest coast of America, where the "potlatch" or give-away is standard practice, the "object of all Kwakiutl enterprise was to show oneself superior to one's rivals . . . . It found expression in uncensored self-glorification and ridicule of all comers" (175); their "picture of the ideal man" (185) was in terms of contests to shame rivals, e.g., by giving away more property in conspicuous waste (174) but with controls against overdoing, lest one impoverish ones folks, (which was "phrased as a moral tabu" (180) ), or by murder of the owner of prerogatives, taking "his name, his dances, and his crests" (194); but this kind of rivalry "is notoriously wasteful . . . . It is a tyranny ... it can never be satisfied" (228). A hymn "of self-glorification" (177) could be extensive (e.g. 175-77), naming one's names:

I am Yaqatlenlis, I am Cloudy, and also Sweid; I am great Only One, and . . . I am Great Inviter. Therefore I feel like laughing at what the lower chiefs say, for they try in vain to down me by talking against my name . . . (176).

And in such a culture as the Kwakiutl we seem to have institutionalized the "anti-idealneighbor" of Matt. 20: 25-28, to whom, in competition, Jesus might refer to himself as the "Ancient of Days" on His throne (Dan. 7:13), not a mere upstart. (There can be seen a good component here, of a "tax" which in part distributes or equalizes wealth, but it is the pride component that I have focused on.) However, the One with the "name which is above every name" (Phil. 2:9) prefers to meet this competition by refusing to "count equality with God a thing to be grasped" (Phil. 2:6) and, in a curious "wrestling reversal", to win by taking the form of a servant. He can show Himself as potentially incarnate in all such cultures; and can in that sense (if we allow it) work through our personality development to show potential or actual incarnation of fulfillment of these goals. We in our turn should be living patterns of success in character structure, pointing to the possibility-in-embryo of reaching ideals that others have longed for but find themselves unable to reach by themselves. Here the wistfulness to follow us should be a pointer to following the Lord.

Just a year ago and in a larger cultural setting Josif Ton (in "The Socialist Quest for the New Man," Christianity Today 20, No. 3, 6-9, Mar. 26, 1976) helped us to appreciate the underlying ideal man of Marxist thought: the concept of the "New Man" (7a) as introduced for the future "Communist society which would be established as a result of the revolution" (7a); they thought that "since a man is only the product of his environment, one needs only to create a social system founded on justice and honor to produce a man of noble character, an honest, upright man" (7b); they had a "sincere, incensed desire to rid the working masses of exploitation" (7a). But "There are indications Lenin realized shortly after the revolution that his hope in the spontaneous appearance of the new man in socialism was not being fulfilled . , . corruption and dishonesty in the socialist administration became a serious deficiency" (71)). As one Party secretary, a teacher, told Ton: "1 am sent in to teach them to he noble and honorable . . , to the point of self-sacrifice ... [to] tell only the truth, and live a morally pure life. But they lack motivation for goodness" (Sa). Arid the initiators of the movement felt that at the start, the revolution for its actions required "a desperate man, a hitter man without any hope in an after life, without scruples, one who 'knew' that God does not exist to punish (or reward him)" (61)-7a). Then, the changed economic, political, social environment was supposed to produce the new man, with new character, automatically-but some current Marxists now see clearly "that socialist man's character has not changed. 1-lc has remained [in general-not for all] as he was in the capitalist society: an egoist, full of vice, and devoid of uprightness" (7a). But as for people like Ton, "God chose us to follow him from within socialism . . . . The divine task of the evangelical Christian living in a socialist country is to lead such a correct and beautiful life that he both demonstrates aria convinces this society that he is the new man which socialism seeks" (91)).

And so, once more, we see that part of God's plan is for a kind of cultural incarnation by us into a culture where at some phase-not all of it-the goodneighbor ideal is wistfully known, even when overcolored by the "chlorophyll" of the power wish.

Incarnation in Language

Now we return to incarnation into a local language, as Jesus used the dialect of Galilee. Jesus emptied Himself of the range of communication accessible to the Word itself. Presumably, He babbled as a babe, such that "increasing in favor" (Luke 2:52) with His parents would have been in part through their delight at His language growth. He learned more than just sounds: He adopted a system of sounds-an emic system, with contrasts of kinds of consonants, a limited set of vowels in syllabic patterns. He learned a grammatical structure, and the patterns of story telling normal to that culture. He learned the vocabulary, organized into a system of taxonomic structural fields specific to that culture. All of these patterns are human -in one sense in part "man-made"-in that each culture may change, add, or drop words in accordance with its immediate interests. Each culture has a vocabulary sufficient, I think, to talk of anything which interested

Unconscious cultural arrogance is perhaps often expressed more directly through one's disinterest in another's language than through any other cultural expression.

its grandparents-and gaps in vocabulary are temporary, filled in by invention within the culture (as for kodak),
or by borrowing (as for chocolate from Spanish in turn borrowed from Aztec.) And this freedom, I feel, is one which is God-designed, God-blessed, from way back when God told Adam to name the animals-and from there on He "played the game" by man's rules: "and [God] brought [the animals] to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name" (Gen. 2:19). That is, God, from the beginning, not only allowed man to develop his emic taxonomic language struture, but Hintself chose to work within man's emic language system in His relation to man. That is, the incarnation of thought into man's language is not new to God; the need for it in the bodily incarnation of Christ did not catch heaven by surprise. It was part of the original package. And now He calls on us in turn, to speak the language of the people we wish to help, insofar as in us lies. It is efficient, friendly; and it contributes to the dignity of man as individual man. Refusal to do so, when one could have done so (granted that one could not fault a person for simultaneously learning-sayten languages in his immediate environment such as in a boarding school for various tribesmen) is an affront to that person's worth, as he may react to him.

Unconscious cultural arrogance is perhaps often expressed more directly through one's disinterest in another's language than through any other cultural expression. All the burden of intellectual effort to cross the communication barrier is loaded without consideration onto those who appear "inferior" as they struggle with the load to cross that barrier. Kindness to one's neighbor would take that burden on one's self and let the neighbor have the advantage of freedom of expression, while we (who because of cultural history, which is none of our doing, otherwise pride ourselves on presumed competence or cultural superiority) even out the load of communication from large to small culture.

But what are some of these cultural patterns of language, known to the linguist, but less known to others? What kind of range of emic structures is available currently to man, and clamoring for our effort to try to enter into them?

In pronunciation, those of us from an English environment find "tones" hard to speak, and even harder to analyze into emic systems; I myself put many years into this effort, in analysis first, and in teaching others to do the same kind of thing, second.

In the grammar of the inside of words, suffix sets may be very different from those we are accustomed to.

In the syntax of stories, the order in which the story must he told (in many of the languages of the island of New Guinea, for example), may be controlled by time sequence much more than in English, so that the telling
order and the happening order must in general be kept the same. The result: one cannot say John ate his supper after he came home; but must say: John came home, then ate his supper. It may be difficult or impossible to find in such a language words to translate easily after, before-or if, while, but, because, since, therefore; and the translated order may need to conform more closely to the original happening order of the story than to the order in which the story was told.

Illustrations of such problems-and many more-can be found in the new text by me and Evelyn G. Pike (Grammatical Analysis, Summer Institute of Linguistics Publication in Linguistics No. 53, 1977). Here, however, I am not trying to show this detail, but to emphasize one point: It is the will of God, demonstrated in language at creation and at the birth of Christ into a specific language area, that we should follow the local patterns of communication, finding the emie structure of individuals or cultures, insofar as it is crossculturally or morally appropriate.