Gospel & Culture blog
By Kenneth Nehrbass
American missionary John Allen Chau was killed recently when he traveled alone to Sentinel Island to preach the gospel. India's law makes it illegal for foreigners to land there, partly to protect the islanders from foreign disease, and partly to protect travelers from violence. As a missiologist, people have been asking my thoughts on the killing. Is Chau a hero or not? Other missionaries have been highly praised for taking similar risks: The murder of John Williams and James Harris in Erromango in 1839 sent of a worldwide interest in missions in the South Pacific. The killing of Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming, and Roger Youderian in 1955 sparked similar passion for missions among the unreached. Is Chau's short life a similar example for Christians to take risks for the sake of the gospel?
Chau's tragedy has ramifications for missions in general: Does a sense of divine calling outweigh the risks? Is it okay for a missionary to defy a nation's laws, if his motives are to preach Christ? Should remote places like the Andaman Islands be left alone?
Is his death a tragedy? Yes. The death of anyone is grievous; the murder of anyone is unacceptable and tragic. Many news outlets eulogized Chau well, and I find it natural to empathize with his family and friends who are grieving.
Is risk justified? Yes. Jesus calls us to take great risks for the sake of his name. Peter got out of the boat and walked on water in conditions that could have caused him to drown. Proverbs 3:5 encourages us to "Trust in the Lord, and don't lean on your own understanding." Many of the apostles and church planters in the early centuries were persecuted to the point of death when they preached the gospel across cultures. The scripture clearly places a sense of calling above logic and safety. If God calls you to take a risk, you obey. Josh 1:9 tells us to be strong and courageous. Watch Chau's short challenge to take risks for global missions here.
Is it okay to break the law to do missionary work? Generally, no. Missiologists almost never condone breaking another nation's laws. It's one thing to protest an unjust law in your own country- but as guests in foreign countries, we are not part of the lawmaking process there, and cannot pick and choose which laws to follow. If the Andamans are Indian's territory, missionaries must respect India's laws there. Virtually all missionary organizations work through the official processes and laws of the host countries to gain legal permits to do
By Kenneth Nehrbass
As a professor of intercultural studies, I read students' reflections about culture throughout each semester. Often, my students from the US describe American culture as "patriotic" and even assume that patriotism is not only strong in the USA, but a distinct characteristic of Americans.
My hunch, from traveling the world, and from teaching international students, is that most- virtually all- national cultures foster a sense of patriotism. I wondered how unique US patriotism is.
Luckily, we don't have to rely on hunches. In 2014, Gallup did a poll of 62,000 people in 64 countries to measure levels of patriotism. They narrowly defined patriotism as "willingness to die for your country" which is, of course, a disputable definition. But it may give a window into other patriotic sentiments.
It turns out that the USA was near the bottom, at only 44% willing to die for their country. Below the USA were "Germany, Netherlands, and Japan at 18%, 15% and 11% respectively". What were the most patriotic countries? Morocco and Fiji were tied in number one, with 94% willing to die for their country. Pakistan, Vietnam and Bangladesh were next.
Across the USA on the fourth Thursday of November, grandparents, in-laws and families will be gathering to eat foods they don't usually eat: Turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, yams and cranberry sauce (below, you can post your favorites that I may have left of the list). Some will remember to thank God, the giver of all good gifts (James 1:17). But what about US Americans who are overseas? How will they celebrate? I asked some Biola students who are scattered around the world what they do for Thanksgiving. One in Thailand said her expatriate (US) community usually goes out to a steakhouse or buffet together. Others, including one student in Mongolia and one who split time between Indonesia and South Korea, attempt to mimic the full Thanksgiving meal, but sometimes have to substitute the turkey with chickens. A student in Hong Kong said:
We do it up in a major way. We pull our kids out of school and gather American friends (and others who are interested) and try and pull out all the stops. Used to be finding the biggest chickens available to roast but turkey is more common than it used to be. It’s a chance to show hospitality, connect children to American tradition and spend a day together.
Dr Tom Sappington, associate professor of theology and missions at Biola University said when his family was in Indonesia they invited many Indonesian friends to experience an American Thanksgiving with all the trimmings. "Our Indonesian guests loved it, but one felt like he still needed to get rice on the way back to his home, since you haven't eaten, unless you've had rice."
On the other hand, some US Americans abroad deliberately skip Thanksgiving, if their host culture doesn't celebrate it. A missionary to the south Pacific said, "What do we do when we're abroad for Thanksgiving? Pretend we're not Americans." Another missionary said, "I try not to think about Thanksgiving when we're overseas...too sad to be away from home at that time."
A borrowed holiday?
Of course, US Americans don't have a monopoly on Thanksgiving- especially in this global age of culture-sharing. Canadians celebrate a Thanksgiving feast much like US Americans do, on the Second Monday of October. But most people may be unaware that Canadian Thanksgiving is actually older than the version in the USA, having been brought over in the 16th century by missionaries from Europe. "And we don't have the connection to shopping, like Black Friday in the States," explained Dr Michael Lessard-Clouston, a Canadian who is professor of Applied Linguistics at Biola University. Since moving to the USA, his family has celebrated two Thanksgivings in the fall - on both the Canadian and US dates.
Yes, Thanksgiving, as many Americans know it, is actually a European holiday, especially German and Dutch. Thanksgiving has been celebrated since 1574 in Leiden, Netherlands, after the city survived a period of famine. Erntedankfest (giving-thanks festival) is the harvest celebration in Western Germany, and includes parades and fireworks on the first Sunday in October. A less religious version, the beer-festival known as Oktoberfest, is more widely celebrated at the same time. In fact, many countries with German diaspora celebrate Oktoberfest.
Thanksgiving has also been re-imagined by communities that were marginalized during the early colonial era Emancipated slaves brought American Thanksgiving to Liberia when they began re-settling Western Africa. The official date of Thanksgiving in Liberia is the first Thursday of November.
Pagan harvest ritual?
Thanksgiving, even the Christian-European version, is actually a version of a nearly global phenomenon known as harvest rituals. Throughout tribal communities, the Southern Hemisphere, the annual harvest is celebrated in March and April (their spring). In Vanuatu, clans celebrate the yam harvest by offering first fruits to the magician who is responsible for a good crop yield. Christians in Vanuatu offer their first fruits in church. rather than to the tribal magicians. In fact, the redemption of a pagan harvest ritual is a global phenomenon. For example ChinaSource reported on Lahu Christians in Yunnan province who offered their first fruits in church at the fall harvest.
There are several versions of harvest rituals in Asia (and by Asian communities in diaspora around the globe): At the full moon in mid-autumn, many Han Chinese swap moon cakes during the Moon Festival. Starbucks has capitalized on the event, selling espresso, caramel and hazelnut mooncakes. "Because it's a holiday, people have time to go visit their relatives. In fact, Chinese refer to a full moon as a 'round' moon; and the word round, in Chinese, is relate to the word for 'reunify,' so we reunite at that time," explained Dr John Liang, professor of Applied Linguistics at Biola University. However, Liang told me, his family has not celebrated the moon festival since moving to the USA. "My kids don't even like the taste of the moon cakes- they're too sweet, or have eggs in them." "Sometimes Chinese people say these moon cakes are like American fruit Cakes" Dr. Jamie Sanchez, assistant professor of Intercultural Studies at Biola University, commented.
Sanchez also explained that it can be too reductive to simply refer to the mid-autumn festival as "Chinese Thanksgiving", since there are substantial differences. Besides, "who is to say that the Moon festival is like our Thanksgiving. Maybe our Thanksgiving is like their Moon festival, which is, after all 2000 years older."
South Koreans eat small rice cakes called Songpyeon (송편) on Chuseok Day, an Autumn harvest holiday. Dr. Eunice Hong, adjunct professor at Biola's Cook School of Intercultural Studies, said many Koreans return to their hometowns for the three day holiday to enjoy cooking, eating, and bowing to their deceased ancestors. "Because I grew up here in the United States (and because we are Christians), we do not observe it quite like those in Korea. Ancestors worship is very important to Koreans (traditionally), but because we follow Christ, we do not bow down to the ancestors. So here in the States, we go visit our relatives, the women cook in the kitchen all day and in the evening we eat tons of tradition Korean food, but that's about it!"
Vietnamese celebrate a fall harvest Têt-Trung-Thu similar to China's moon festival. Michael Souter explains it is "the Children’s Festival, is held as a way for parents, once busy with the harvest, to make amends with their children who may have felt neglected." One Vietnamese-American blogged about how his family hybridized their own culinary preferences with American Thanksgiving.
So here's one more thing to be thankful for this year: The many ways people around the globe have celebrated bounty, and have celebrated each other. What's on the menu, and the date of the celebration, isn't the important thing. Above all, God delights when we praise Him for his goodness to us all year round (Psalm 147:11).
As a professor of missions, I often hear people say "you can be missionary right in your own neighborhood." As with any academic field, it's important to get the terms clear. While you can be an evangelist in your own neighborhood, "missionary" and "missions" should not be confused with "evangelism" or "discipleship."
Missions is cross-cultural discipleship, so some very important work that we do as the church is NOT missions. Drawing a boundary does mean excluding some work from the definition of missions (thought such work may be missional and strategic for the church). Consider the following true examples from my students:
Sharon, from the USA, teaches English in Thailand. She was not sent by her church, is not under a mission agency, and receives a salary from her university. While she is working cross-cultural, she does not see herself as a missionary because her presence in Thailand is not particularly about making disciples
Miguel, from the Philippines, is studying theology and missions in the USA, but plans to plant churches among his own ethnic group in the Philippines. He considers himself a church planter, but not a missionary.
Carmen, from the USA, is financially supported by members of her own church to do the bookkeeping for a mission organization in West Africa. She does not particularly “teach them to obey all Jesus has commanded,” but her mission organization does have an overall plan to make disciples. Carmen sees herself as a missionary because of her important role in an organization that is doing missions.
If a cross cultural worker digs wells but has no overall plan for “teaching them to obey all Jesus commanded,” then while it is obeying the first commandment to manage the earth for the flourishing of humankind, it is not part of the narrower aspect of the churches mission to make disciples across cultures. And in all fairness, I must add, if an organization plants churches and hands out tracks, but is not actually “teaching them to obey all Jesus has commanded,” then it, too, is not actually doing missions.
Of course, in our day-to-day experience, the set of activities which are involved in making disciples is fuzzy. Healthcare can be done in a way that teaches people to obey Jesus, or it can be done without touching on issues of discipleship. A Christian could work cross-culturally in such a way that she makes disciples in her secular workplace, or she could hide her light under a bushel. By defining missions narrowly as cross-cultural discipleship, I am not as much excluding certain activities as I am focusing on the setting (does it cross cultural boundaries) and strategy (does it make disciples) that drives those activities.
The activities (methods) and purpose seem to fall in three general categories. The most obvious is witness. Some “teach them to obey all Jesus commanded” by planting churches, teaching in international seminaries, exorcising demons, and preaching to crowds at college campuses. But in 2016 we reached the threshold where more than 50% of people who call themselves missionaries say their primary activity is not witness, but service, development, healthcare, or cultural production through the arts. A second category of missionary methods includes engagement in public life. And a third we may label as “cultural production.” The below shows how these categories fit together in the bigger picture of making disciples across cultures.
If I told you a movie was about a linguist who tried to establish a trusting relationship with foreigners so she could learn their language, you probably wouldn't expect it to be an alien movie. The aliens (called heptapods, because of their seven legs, in the film) arrived on earth in twelve pods, but never deboarded their ships. They were unhurried in making their intentions known. Meanwhile, armies around the world desperately wanted to know if the aliens were friend or foe.
Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) had to learn enough of the Alien language to ask "Why are you here" -- and she needed to know enough vocabulary to understand their answer. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the answer was so ambiguous it could mean "Give weapons" "Give tools" or even "Show your weapons!"
I remember on Tanna Island how often people would ask me, "Why, exactly, did you come here?" Even though I learned enough of the vernacular in a couple months to say, "To translate God's word into your language," a number of people were still suspicious. What's your real intention? Are you going to steal our land? Are you going to make money off of us? I think it took several years, and numerous trips to the hospital, to demonstrate that our intentions were to be helpful.
In the film, it wasn't until Banks walked among the heptapods in their own environment on the ship that she became fluent in their language. Up to that point, she and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) were only boarding the alien ship for a few minutes every ten hours. This can be a stern exhortation for cross-cultural workers: If you spend most of your time with expats, or boarded up in your own home while overseas, you'll never learn the language or culture. You have to get out of the environment you're comfortable in, and immerse yourself with the people you're going to be working with.
Linguist and anthropologist Eugene Nida argued that religious conversion is like learning a second language in adulthood: Just as languages have surface structures (vocabulary and grammar), they also have "deep structures" or underlying meanings. It's the same with religions: baptism is a surface structure, but its underlying meaning is about the sinful nature, regeneration, repentance. And, Nida continues the analogy, just as languages manifest in multiple dialects, so do religions-- there are different ways to do baptism, for instance, or different ways to pray to God. To complete the analogy, Nida said that just as we have accents when we learn a language as an adult, we carry this "accent" of our first religion into the religion that we learn later on in life.
That is, we learn our first religion- that of our parents and home culture- the same way we learn our native language. But if we convert, we have to learn the new religion like we learn a language in adulthood- we have to learn by immersion, of course, and also by analysis, by having things explained to us-- it's not as implicit and "organic" as the process of learning the religion of our youth.
This gets me thinking- can you ever forget your native language? And to extend the analogy, do you ever "forget" your religion of your youth, when you convert as an adult? To extend religion to all aspects of culture-- maybe this is why assimilation is so difficult for any of us. If all of culture is like Nida's analogy of language- then we carry these "accents" of our home culture into the host cultures where we sojourn. And we can never seem to learn the nuances of all these new cultural "dialects".
There are many ramifications of this notion of conversion as a sort of "second language acquisition." It means when we disciple or evangelize, we have to be aware of the "first religious language" of the people with whom we are sharing Jesus. In some ways, the structures and underlying meanings of their native religion help facilitate the learning of this new religious language of Christianity (ideas about morality, for instance, or obligation). But in some ways, learning Christianity is like a foreign language (when it comes to grace, for instance)
Nida, E. 1978. "Linguistic models for religious behavior." In Smaley, G (ed) Readings in Missionary Anthropology. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.
I was moved when I heard that the Olympics has a new team this year: Ten refugees who could not compete in their own country of origin were invited to compete in the Olympic Refugee Team. Remember, these swimmers and runners (and in one case, a judo fighter) do not have "refugee" as their primary identity: They are athletes. They have back stories too-- where they have had dreams of being in the Olympics for years. They have been training for years, with the support of coaches and families. It's not like these folks were let into the Olympics just as a PR move, or simply out of sympathy- though the Olympic Committee did intend to cast a spotlight on the refugee crisis. Still, these men and women earned their spot. In that way, they're not that different from any other team in the Olympics.
Then I thought, "But is the Refugee Team really a team, if the athletes come from several different countries, including Syria, Turkey, and Iran?" And then I realized that most countries competing in the Olympics have teams that are composed of multiple ethnicities and even national origins. The Refugee has more in common with the other teams than I originally realized. The Refugee team is just a more stark example of the sort of globalization we're all experiencing.
What was your response when you learned about the Olympic Refugee team?
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor