Gospel & Culture blog
Every few years, a story comes out about the discovery of previously un-contacted tribes --- usually in the Amazonian jungle. A few days ago the Guardian reported that photographer Ricardo Stuckert's helicopter was diverted, and his flight took him over one such tribe. Stuckert posted his photos of the Indians (this is how they are referred to in the news story) looking up at the helicopter, bows and spears in hand. In 2014, the Guradian had a similar story about un-contacted Indians who fled their home and crossed into Peru to seek help.
I have become curious about why we are so fascinated by the notion of tribes that have little knowledge about the outside world. I have few hunches:
I think the issue warrants more of our attention than just a lookey-loo at people with brown skin, hand-fashioned weapons and loin cloths. Survival International says there are as many as 100 un-contacted tribes, whose land, way of life, and even existence are threatened. The push and pull factors of modernity and cultural preservation is a complicated issue: How do indigenous peoples balance their desires to protect the land, the need for modern medicine, their interest in modern conveniences, their need to have a political voice at the national and international level. Plus, the interests of the national government and international businesses (loggers, oil companies, etc.) are also at play.
Perhaps, without articulating all of these conflicting interests in a nano-second, it's the extremely complicated nature of all of this which catches our imagination and makes us stop to look at the stories about the discoveries of unknown tribes.
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.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor