Gospel & Culture blog
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.
News organizations like NBC and Reuters reported recently on a fad sweeping through Thailand: adult women are carrying dolls sold under the moniker “child angels” for good luck. The owners talk to their dolls, feed them snacks, and tell them how much they love them. And they report that their lives are better since they have adopted the figurines.
The news reports rightly identified this activity as “animistic” in that the Thai are animating the objects as if they have a volition and efficaciousness. However, I’m surprised that reporters were willing to put an ethnocentric label like “superstitious” on the new trend.
What is notable to me about Southeast Asian women taking such an interest in the dolls is how this demonstrates culture change and the remarkable way innovations are diffused. It’s not innovative to speak to dolls or carry them with you everywhere you go- or even wishing to purchase a plane seat for them. Young girls in Western countries have patterned these behaviors for decades. This Western cultural feature is simply being adopted and modified by older women in Thailand. If young Thai girls were inseparable from their dolls- or even attributed some good luck to them- we wouldn’t have taken notice. So we don’t have a case of superstition as much as adaptation of a Western innovation, which has been reorganized somewhat.
Regarding “superstition,” the craze does exhibit what James Frazer called the “law of similarity”. I think the logic may go something like this: Young, wealthy Western girls carry dolls and are healthy and wealthy; therefore, if I carry a doll like they do, I will enjoy the same sort of fortune.” What has allowed this imitative magical thinking to spread so quickly is that it is compatible with the traditional religion in Southeast Asia.
George Hunter's To Change the World may more accurately be called "To NOT change the World" since he argues that rather than try to influence the political process, legislate morality, or achieve a moral majority, Christians should practice "faithful presence." If we successfully change the world, Hunter says, it will be precisely because we have not tried to attain a sort of hegemony under Christendom, but instead to point to the Creator. While Hunter is a United Methodist, he is arguing for a more-or-less Anabaptist view of Christianity-in-Culture, where the political system and other cultural spheres are so corrupt, and coercive power so abhorrent, that Christian involvement in secular culture is de-emphasized. The processes and pressures that lead to change, in Hunter's view, are the when cultural elites share overlapping spheres of influence.
The value of Hunter's argument is that it helps us deal with some of our cognitive dissonance: We hear that 90% of Americans believe in God, but we still see pervasive anti-religious sentiment. Or we spend so much time defending and spreading the Judeo-Christian worldview, and yet great ideas don't seem to be enough to change the cultural tide.
But I think what makes the rest of us feel uneasy about this is that -- frankly-- we're not cultural elites. And being highly individualistic and democratic we feel like culture change should alos be a democratic process. Like you and I should have the same opportunity to "change the world" as Angelina Jolie or Albert Einstein-- okay, maybe not Einstein, but at least as much of a shot at it as Jolie.
And our evangelism efforts are often reflect this conviction- isn't changing the world essentially about each of us leading our own neighbors to Christ?
It's not that Hunter's "cultural elite" view is wrong, or that the "democratic view of change" is wrong- both models play an important part. In fact, a number of other theories about culture change also come in to play, depending on the change. Sometimes all the cultural elites in the world can't hold a candle to the force that economics or environmental pressures have in creating cultural change. Sometimes worldview has everything to do with change (as in the era of tolerance). Sometimes it has nothing to do with change (as in whether fat or thin neck ties are in style). Often, a convergence of many forces (cultural elites, environmental pressures, as well as biological needs and plain old diffusion) are necessary for creating change.
In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond presented the argument from cultural ecology that on a macro-scale, the differences between cultures is largely because of geography: The peoples who had access to grains and domesticated animals were able to develop civilizations (and eventually guns, germs and steel) which would enable them to conquer the world. Diamond was heavily criticized (as any best-selling scholar will be) for his argument. Since he is a biologist, and not an anthropologist, he largely neglected the role that culture plays in the trajectories of people groups. Diamond's next book, The World Until Yesterday, addresses that oversight.
Surprisingly, Diamond resists the pressure to perpetuate the politically correct notion of the noble savage and he refrains from Western self-loathing. He neither idealizes tribal cultures nor vilifies modern civilizations. He recognizes that tribal cultures in fact have much greater variation, so it is harder to characterize them at all.
Diamond's main argument is that the world until yesterday was a dangerous place- as societies moved from hunter-gatherer to agrarian, they began defedning the land that they had worked to make so productive. The defense of these limited resources caused them to be suspicious of their neighbors. There were three kinds of people: known friends, known enemies, and unknown enemies. This suspicion made it impossible to explore, which hindered trade and the diffusion of ideas. So societies became more insular, and afraid to take risks. It also mean that any justice or retribution had to be taken into your own hands.
In contrast, with the invention of the modern nation-state, we no longer have to worry about walking down the street and meeting strangers. We can enter into business partnerships that may be risky, because the government can exact justice on those who fail to meet their end of the contract. And we can explore the next mountain ridge or river shore without fear, since the state has brought peace.
But there are advantages to the world-yesterday. Some tribal societies care for their elderly better than moderns do (of course, some create social pressures that force the elderly to commit suicide actively or passively by wandering into the bush or onto an ice floe). Diamond also considers other advantages of "primitive" society such as multi-lingualism and the freedom that young children are given to wander.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor