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  • Writer's pictureW. Austin Gardner

Be a Learner of the New Culture

There are two types of misunderstanding that we need to overcome: our misunderstanding of the people and their culture, and their misunderstanding of us. To overcome the first of these,

we must enter the new culture as learners.

We must make the study of the culture one of our central concerns throughout our missionary ministry, for

only then will we be able to communicate the gospel in ways the people understand.

Our temptation here is to think that because we are bearers of the Good News, we have come as teachers.

But as teachers we often close the door to our learning to know the people and their customs and beliefs. Through our attitudes of superiority, we also make it difficult for the people to accept us and the message we bring.

Strangely enough we usually have more opportunity to share the gospel meaningfully when we enter a people's society as students rather than teachers. People are proud of their culture, and if we are genuine students, many of them are all too happy to teach us their ways and take us into their lives.

When trust has been built, they will become interested in us and our beliefs.

We then can share with them the gospel in nonthreatening ways, as friends and participants in their society.

One common and pernicious temptation we face after we have studied a culture for a time is to think that now we really understand it. But this is rarely the case. Years of study only make us aware of how far we are from seeing a cultural world as an insider. One clue that we do not understand some part of a culture is that it seems to make no sense to us.

We need always to remember that a culture makes sense to its people.

If it does not seem clear to us, we are the ones who misunderstand, and we must study it further.

To overcome the people's misunderstanding of us and our customs,

we need to be open and explicit in explaining our ways to them.

Once a measure of trust has been built, their questions will be many: "Why do you sleep on beds?" "Do you really eat meat?" "Why haven't you married off your daughter yet; she is already six!" "How much does this cost, and that and this?" "How much money do you make? What do you do with so much?"

People stop by to see our strange ways-how we eat and get ready for bed, how we brush our teeth and write our letters. They want to try our strange machines-the radio, tape recorder, camera, stove, and flashlight. Our children's dolls are passed from hand to hand, and the children themselves are often the objects of careful examination and discussion. And when they are through, they talk about us at the village well and under a tree. For many missionaries, this loss of privacy is hard.

They do not realize that such investigations are important in developing trust.

Inside and outside views. In learning another culture and sharing our own,

we soon become aware that there is more than one way to look at a culture.

First, we all learn to see our own culture from the inside. We are raised within it and assume it is the only and right way to view reality. Anthropologists refer to this insider's perspective as an "emic" view of a culture.

When we encounter another culture, however, we soon realize that we are looking at it as outsiders. We examine its cultural knowledge by using the categories of our own. Later we discover that the people of the other culture are looking at our ways through their own cultural assumptions. Does this mean we are condemned forever to look at other cultures only from the perspective of our own? If so, is crosscultural understanding ever possible?

Cross-cultural understanding is possible, and we see it happening all the time.

People migrate to new cultures, and people with different backgrounds interact in many settings. Their understandings of one another are never perfect, but they often are pretty good. At first we may think that people must discard their own culture and convert to another one to understand it. For example, we may argue that missionaries must reject their own cultures to become members of another. But this is impossible, since we can never fully erase the imprint of our original culture on the deepest levels of our thoughts, feelings, and values.

In a sense we are culture brokers who live between two worlds and transmit information from one to the other. This does not mean that we should live detached from the culture in which we serve. It does mean that even after we have identified with it as closely as we can, we recognize that in some sense we are still outsiders.

Even if the missionary identifies with a new culture, the gospel in one sense always comes from without. It is divine revelation, given in one cultural context to modern recipients.

Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries

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