“You can observe a lot by just watching” (Yogi Berra)

25 Apr

Last week I was back in Llanelli, South Wales, but this time only via a webcam from home in Spain, teaching a short course on “Tools for Anthropological Research” to the fantastic trainees on the World Horizons Equipping for Service programme. Another reason for a gap in blogs… (What a bunch of willing guinea pigs… it was the first time I had taught the course, and they all did just great.)

“Tools for Anthropological Research”… sounds mighty fancy, but it is about simply learning to observe people and their culture, to see what is really there but remains hidden behind our own assumptions, to view the world in the way they do. It’s about having practical means that enable us to discover what is important for them, not for us, tools to help us go beyond the “wow, this culture is really different” to understanding what makes it different and take the first steps in our own adaptation to those differences. Direct involvement in and observation of the culture itself, interviews with cultural informants and learning from others’ research form the backbone of this methodology.

Without a practical and systematic approach, cultural learning becomes a bit hit and miss, not to mention a minefield of potentially awkward moments waiting to ambush us when we least expect it. However, even if the carrot of better understanding and integration is attractive, it can also seem like a whole lot of hard work. Why even bother? Can’t we “just preach the gospel” without all this cultural adaptation stuff? Get in there, give ’em the gospel, and be done with it!

¡Ojalá!, as we say here (“I would that it were so”). But no. Just as the gospel cannot be separated from the language used to communicate our message, in the same way the cultural world in which communication happens becomes part of the message itself. And if we do not understand how our intended audience see the world, we have no hope of knowing how they will understand us, much less being in a place to construct a message in such a way as to make sense for them and which responds to their needs and concerns. There are no short cuts to effective cross-cultural communication, which is perhaps the greatest reason why so many have yet to really hear the gospel in a way they can understand and respond to.

Learning to observe is not as easy as it might at first sight appear. What we take for granted from our own cultural milieu can blind us to what is there — or is absent — in another. More obvious behaviour may stand out to us, but we can remain ignorant of the motivation behind actions as well as failing to see beyond these superficial aspects. And what we give importance to in the way we have been taught to relate to the world around us can prevent us from seeing what they prioritize. Although totally subconscious, the process we were subjected to in becoming compliant members of our own culture was extremely effective; we enter another’s world only with a good measure of dedication and focus.

The book of Proverbs (24:32 NIV) says something similar:

I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw

Or as the NLT puts it:

Then, as I looked and thought about it, I learned this lesson

Learning starts with seeing — I use this in the wider sense, involving all of our senses, not just physical sight — and seeing is the product of conscious looking, of patient and deliberate observation. Then comes thinking through, applying our mind and all the abilities that God has given us to understanding what we have seen. Learning finishes with the practical application to our own lives, taking on board what we have learned and allowing the implications to affect the way we relate to those around us and communicate.

This process applies to all of culture, including religion. In building bridges for the gospel we must start from both sides, from where the hearers are too, not just from the perspective of our own understanding of the gospel. A people’s religious views provide much needed context for understanding how to transmit concepts that will inevitably be seen by our hearers as belonging to the realm of religion.

Now the concept of “religion” is much wider than the supernatural and whether people believe in God or not, or how that belief, where it exists, is expressed. “Religion” connects our day-to-day experience to a wider cosmic framework; it relates to a person’s basic understanding of how the universe fits together and our place in it, a position that is the result of deeply held beliefs, not logical deduction. The supernatural may or may not come in to it, and a belief system such as “New Atheism” certainly fits within anthropology’s understanding of religion.

Engraved plaque containing Apostle Paul's serm...

Engraved plaque containing NT text of the apostle Paul's sermon, at the Areopagus, Athens. (Wikipedia)

In his mission to the Gentiles, Paul engaged with unfamiliar religious scenes. During his stay in Athens, learning through observation and enquiry laid the foundation for debate with local philosophers:

For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. (Acts 17:23, TNIV)

His careful observation (ἀναθεωρέω, anatheoreo, meaning “to consider attentively, to look closely or repeatedly”) of the Athenians’ religious scene combined with his Greek education to give him the tools he needed to interact with those present in the Areopagus. Understanding of contemporary philosophical currents and familiarity with religious themes found in Greek poetry helped him bring a relevant message and bridge the gap to his proclamation of Jesus and the resurrection. Whilst our ability to participate will always be limited, cultural learning through close observation of other religious practices is a necessary part of the learning that we need for effective cross-cultural communication.

And finally, please do not think that this belongs solely to the realm of “overseas missions”. If the Church in the West is to engage effectively with the wider world it must invest time and effort to understand its culture, a culture which is now foreign to that of most of our churches; evangelical preaching is not destined to unlock the hearts of the majority in the West today. Look. Watch. Observe. Interact. Think. Understand. And adapt accordingly.

One Response to ““You can observe a lot by just watching” (Yogi Berra)”

  1. Carlos May 11, 2012 at 11:31 am #

    Another great article Neil! Thank you,

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