Gospel & Culture blog
By Kenneth Nehrbass
"Identity" "Identity politics" and "cultural identity" are hot topics now. Anyone involved in intercultural studies who wants to study "identity" must be clear if they are talking about identity the way ethnographers mean it (avowals and attestations of a particular ethnolinguistic group), and identity the way sociologists mean it (the relationship between identity and racial awareness). Authors are not always clear which perspective they come from when they say "identity", so you would have to deduce their meaning of identity as you read through their work. The following gives you clues for how to deduce that meaning.
All over the world, people seem to reify their behaviors as cultural facts. For example, I have heard Aussies avow their cultural identity in terms of informality ("We are so informal that we don't even call our physician 'doctor') and collectivism ("Don't be too puffed up: When a poppy stands out from the others, we clip it"). Or my East Asian students occasionally avow their Confucian penchant for self-improvement through education. So it is not just outsiders who attest to cultural stereotypes (perhaps to freeze the cultural expressions of the Other as backwards, or inferior); but cultural insiders also embrace, or freeze these cultural expressions when it is advantageous to them. The identification of these cultural differences has been a preoccupation of intercultural studies since Edward Hall popularized the field through the Foreign Service Institute. Fredrick Barth concluded that a description of individual cultures would turn toward "trait inventories" (p. 12) "overt signals or signs...that people look for and exhibit to show identity...such as dress, language, house-form" and
by Ken Nehrbass
This is a series of blogs on the theology of culture, which really can be seen as a "theology of everything" if culture is everything we think, have and do as members of a society. n this post, I introduce ideas that are central to a theology of education. As with other aspects of the "theology of culture," I am looking at God's intended purpose, structure and authority for government
The purpose of education as a cultural system
The cultures of the world have competing ideas about the purpose of education: in the USA education is increasingly about career advancement rather than to make people well-rounded thinkers or to encourage personal enrichment. The seeing in emphasis from liberal arts to STEM is a result of the trend to align higher education with career, rather than knowledge. Other cultures emphasize that education is about socialization, guaranteeing social welfare (a populace needs to be literate to ensure the growth of GDP), or simply about making good citizens. All of these are legitimate purposes of education, as long as none becomes an idol. In early missionary work around the world, education was primarily about teaching people to read so they could know scripture and discern Christian worldview but also focused on increasing the economic lives of those in poorer parts of the world.
Like all cultural systems, the ultimate purpose of education is for humankind to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Kuyper argued that education has been God’s plan along- building on the knowledge of previous ancestors. There was no way for one generation to fulfil the command to fill the earth and subdue it, so education is necessary for us to transmit the accumulation of knowledge as we make something great of the world God created.
Scripture balances the tendency to make education an idol, on the one hand, with ignorance or foolishness on the other:
•He who increases knowledge increases sorrow –Ecc1:18
•For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. As it is written: "He catches the wise in their craftiness” (1 Cor3:19) quoting Job 5:13
The structure of education as a cultural system
Education is neither entirely the task of the parents, nor entirely the task of the state. Some may be reluctant to allow state involvement at all with the education of a Christian community. Yet an education that is wholly separate from the state will not be able to achieve all the purposes that God plans for education. A fully functioning educational system would lead to cures for cancer, mapping the human genome, designing better bridges, interpreting history in ways that dignify diverse peoples. Many of these advancements are possible because of state involvement.
Others might argue that the private enterprise should take on the task of education-- let the free market determine which majors are valuable enough to offer at the university. Let people pay for education what it is worth. But in reality, virtually no government wholly accepts this notion-- the state must get involved to ensure that those who do not have money can still become literate and even upwardly mobile.
The authority for education as a cultural system
The authority for education is firstly located within the family, as parents "train up their children" (Prov 22:6). But as I mentioned above, the authority for education must also be located within the state, which has resources for research-one institutions that can train up specialists like aerospace engineers and epidemiologists. Only the state - not the family- can ensure system-wide literacy and vocational training.
By Ken Nehrbass
This is a series of blogs on the theology of culture, which really can be a "theology of everything" if culture is everything we think, have and do as members of a society. In this post, I provide some direction for the theology of family, which begins (as with all other cases in the "theology of" culture) by asking about the purpose, structure and authority of family.
The purpose of family as a cultural system
The purpose of all aspects of culture, more generally, is for humans to flourish. Marriage, being one of the first institutions God instituted (in Eden), was explicitly for our flourishing. Somehow the "leaving and cleaving" (Gen 2:24) when a man and wife are committed to each other unto death guarantees flourishing. Primarily, this seems to relate to the fact that there is no other social relationship where we see distinct persons referred to as "one." In this sense, marriage reflects the Trinity better than any other relationship; and this reflection is for our own instruction. The Father Son and Holy Spirit are eternally creating, communicating and loving; and marriage is where this sort of intimacy is to be found primarily, among all relationships. Note that the term for wife, "helpmate", is not derogatory- in fact, God refers to Himself as a helpmate more than 15 times in the OT.
What about the purpose of other relationships in the family? Family, including extended family relationships, are God's way of ensuring elderly are taken care of when they cannot take care of themselves (1 Tim 5:8) - of ensuring small children are "trained up in the way they should go" (Prov 22:6) so they can be flourishing members of society - of ensuring that wealth is produced and inherited (Prov
What is so attractive about animism? As a guest on Dr. Darrell Bock's podcast, I discussed the challenges that animism poses to the church
By Kenneth Nehrbass
By Kenneth Nehrbass
Some popular authors (Dawkins, Hitchens) have argued that religious fervor is responsible for intolerance and fighting: if people would stop being so religious, societies would be more tolerant and peaceful. These advocates believe that the key to getting along is for religion to just go away. They imagine that highly religious societies cannot have religious freedom; freedom of thought must be correlated with the absence of religion.
But is there really a correlation between religious enthusiasm and religious pluralism? True, some countries like Indonesia notoriously have very high religious fervor (99% of adults in Indonesia- the world's largest Islamic country- said religion was extremely important) and Indonesia has very little religious freedom - Pew rated the government involvement in religion (GRI) index for Indonesia at 8.4 out of 10. On the other hand, Estonia is one of the world's most secular nations: only 17% said religion was important; yet the country rates only 1.2 out of 10 on governmental involvement in religion. Cases like these suggest that the more religious a country is, the less religious freedom there will be; the key to religious freedom must be to be secular like Estonia.
The problem with this thinking is that there are many counter-examples. Russia is fairly secular (35% said religion was important) but the government squelches religious freedom (7.4 out of 10); and this is about the same with Israel. And on the other end of the spectrum, Brazil and Malawi are some of the most highly religious nations, yet enjoy some the highest rates of religious freedom.
I correlated the GRI with levels of religious enthusiasm for 101 countries to test the null hypothesis that "there is no relationship between religious interest and religious freedom." The correlation coefficient r=0.10, which is a very weak correlation: There is only a very weak correlation between religious enthusiasm and degree of religious pluralism. The chart below shows the results:
By Ken Nehrbass
We know that the gospel is not like a plant to be transplanted, but more like a seed to be sown so it will grow on its own in soils all over the world. But how do we know what that "seed" is? Judiasm didn't have this difficulty of separating the "essentials" from the "translatables," because Judaism sought to maintain a cultural, geographic, and linguistic homogeneity wherever it was practiced.. Islam also tries to remain homogenous by translating Arabic and its umma. But Christianity tries to be limitless in cultural translatability. What parts of Christianity are essentials in each culture?
The answer to that question is not black and white. The answers fall on a continuum. On the left side of the spectrum, Karl Barth argued that only Jesus Christ was the "word" and no human language could encapsulate that word. On the right end of the spectrum, Carl F Henry and John MacArthur argue that the "plain meaning of the text" is not blurred by culture, and can be directly expressed and understood in any context. Most missiologists fall in the middle of this continuum-- there are some "plain meanings" that are transcultural, whereas other aspects of the Christian faith are shaped by the cultural context. But how do we know what falls in each of these two categories?
The church has typically answered this question through cross-cultural councils where they worked out creeds, like the Apostle's Creed or the Nicene Creed. Going back in Christian history, the affirmation that "Jesus is Lord" was a simple, non-negotiable tenet across cultures. We could look at the sermons in the book of Acts to see what Paul considered to be the "kernel" of the Christian faith. More recently, the Lausanne Covenant and Chicago declaration, which solidified a global consensus on the essentials of the Christian faith.
Why should the global church collaborate to work out the "kernel" of the gospel? Why not just stick to the wisdom of the early church fathers or to Western theologians? The reason working out this kernel must be a global project is that we are all myopic, and cannot see the full implications of the gospel. Westerners long focused on the judicial aspect of the atonement, and paid less attention to the power that Christ gives over the demonic. Pacific Island Christians often focus on the healing and wellness that Christ brings, but may
with guest contributor Denis LaClare
The new GodTools app from CRU was designed to help people share the gospel in any setting from a phone or tablet. In addition to the iconic “Four Spiritual Laws”, there are 2 versions of “Knowing God Personally” and “Satisfied”, which explore the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
And the newest tool is called “Honor Restored" which is aimed at sharing the gospel among the more than one million international students who are in the USA. Many of these students come from honor/shame cultures. In simplistic terms, the first of three primary worldviews can be summarized as “Western”, which emphasizes an interpretation of the world through the lenses of guilt and innocence.
A second worldview element for many international students is based on fear and power. Any culture with indigenous peoples (Africans, Native Americans, etc.) or cultures that try to appease the spiritual world out of fear, fall into this category. A third worldview encapsulates almost all of the Asian, Arab and Persian world and is motivated by honor and shame. The avoidance of shame and the acquisition of honor for themselves and their families are their highest virtues. The Honor Restored digital tool gives them an opportunity to understand the good news in terms that make sense to them. Released in January, 2018, the tool has 2400 “hits” and at least one international student has given their life to Jesus after walking through Honor Restored with a fellow student. Cru hopes to see thousands of students understand and embrace Jesus as a result of this tool.
“Probably the most controversial idea of the Church Growth Movement was the elaboration of the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP)” (Pickett, 2015, p. 178). The HUP states “People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers” therefore “conversion should occur with the minimum of social dislocation” (McGavran, 1990, p. x). That is, church planting efforts should focus on “homogenous units” which McGavran defines as “simply a section of society in which all the members have some characteristic in common” (1990, p. 85). McGavran avers “the great obstacles to conversion are social, not theological” (p. 156). People will not give a church a fair hearing if they stick out in the congregation like a sore thumb. Birds of a feather flock together.
The HUP is a product of the discourse of contextualization and the notion of people groups: The gospel must be presented to people in ways that are culturally familiar to them, including indigenous language, worship style, architecture, and so on. The HUP suggests that church growth efforts will be most effective if they are directed at homogenous units (which can be taken to mean ethnolinguistic people groups).
It is significant that the HUP was conceived by missiologists who worked in India, since India is one of the most socially stratified nations. Caste identity can significantly limit South Asian’s interactions with others who are of higher or lower standing. Therefore, it would seem, church ministry would be easiest among people of the same caste. The HUP suggests that church planting efforts should focus on these homogenous units, like the Dalits or the Brahmins.
The HUP is so controversial because it seems to subvert the value of diversity, the cross-pollination of theological thought, and the unity of the body of Christ. This emphasis on distinct worshipping communities may seem to contrast Galatians 2:28, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (NIV). Yet, Wagner (1978) argued, “Gentiles do not have to become Jews, females do not have to become males… in order to enter into and share the blessings of God's Kingdom” (p. 18). The HUP was meant to reify cultural difference, not to cause cultural divisions. As Steffen (2011) mentioned, “McGavran believed the homogeneous unit was a necessary starting point. He also believed it was not the end point. Homogenous churches could and should eventually become more heterogeneous” (p. 28).
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor