Gospel & Culture blog
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 reimagined 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. Dr David Lowry, associate professor of anthropology at Biola University, who is a member of the Lumbee Tribe in North Carolina, said that many Native Americans, as part of wider American culture, celebrate Thanksgiving with their families. "There, we have a lot of bar-b-que. There's lots of pork. And we have a lot activities surrounding church services at Thanksgiving." But, Dr Lowry explained, Native American discourse about the first Thanksgiving may be turned on its head: Rather than amicably receiving instruction from the Native Americans about how to survive the winters, "the 'pilgrims' or colonizers stole technology and coopted Native American techniques."
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).
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.
Below is the answer I give in my newest book God's Image and Global Cultures:
 See Scarborough Enough Is Enough; Starnes God Less America.
 See B. Carson America the Beautiful; Gingrich Rediscovering God in America.
 See Hedges American Fascists; Rudin The Baptizing of America; Whitten The Myth of Christian America.
 I asked five acquaintances who each had more than 2000 “friends” on Facebook to post the survey on their “wall.” Respondents answered a survey on SurveyMonkey.
 Tocqueville, Democracy in America.
 Gingrich and Gingrich. “A City upon a Hill.”
 Asmus and Grudem. The Poverty of Nations.
Globalization matters for Christians. In my newest book, God's Image and Global Cultures, I talk about a number of ways Christians must respond to the increased interconnectedness in the global marketplace. Below is an excerpt:
 B. Barber, "Jihad vs. McWorld."
 Veseth, Globaloney, 68.
 Pearse, Why the Rest Hates the West, 17.
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?
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.
Why Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld is a good conversation starter, but not sound economics or political theory
I wish I could assign Benjamin Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld for one of my classes on intercultural communication or culture change, but Barber's prolonged rant against Capitalism undoes any usefulness in his theory about the tension between tribalism and globalization. Barber's ground-breaking thesis (twenty years ago) was that globalization (which he calls McWorld) and tribalism (which he calls Jihad) both undermine the nation state. Modern states, in his mind, serve as the checks and balances. Unfettered globalization would undermine freedom by compelling us all to speak the same language (English), eat the same diet (McDonalds) shop in the same stores (WalMart). On the other hand, tribalism undermines the homogenizing nation state by accentuating ethnic and religious differences. "Global economic forces weaken the nation-state in developed areas where it is mos democratic and strengthen it in the Third World where it is least democratic, imperiling liberty in both cases" (56). It was a fascinating theory as globalization was just taking off in 1995.
I have, happily, just finished reading Everett Rogers' "Diffusion of Innovations." Although Rogers didn't present his research for the benefit of religious workers, I think he would agree that his theory of diffusion holds for religion every bit as much as it does for the adoption of innovations like iPods, new corn hybrids, or AIDS medicines. It seems strange to adopt so many of Rogers' terms into the discussion of missions and evangelism; on the other hand, his ideas can help us look at evangelism in a new way:
To apply Rogers' models, we'd also need to ask:
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor