Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: culture

In the world, but not of the world

With the launching of the New Testament vision a new idea was being launched; the world was being treated to a new and very revolutionary concept of society, namely that men can get along peacefully in the market place even though they do not worship at the same shrine. The New Testament conceives of humanity as a composite thing ̶ that is, composed of factions. It expects that some men will glory in the very same cross over which other men stumble. . . . And it assumes that such diversity on the plane of religion does not imply cacophony on the square. It thinks that even though men differ basically and radically at the shrine they need not clash in the market place.

In this novel view it is plainly implied that there are resources in the as yet not regenerated human heart . . . that are adequate for the affairs of the state, loyalties that are adequate for the political level.

In the New Testament vision, that which we today call the State and that which we now call the Church are agencies that cater to different loyalties. The state demands a loyalty that man can give, irrespective of their religious orientation, the Church demands a loyalty which only he can give that believes in Christ. The State has a sword with which it constrains men, coerces them if need be, The Church has a sword also, but it is the sword of the Word of God, a sword that goes no farther than moral suasion.

The New Testament envisions no trouble in the outworking of this division of labour – as long as both sides play to the register intended for them; it envisions trouble only if and when either of the two goes outside its province, as for instance when, as in Acts 4:18, men in the uniform of the State tell people whether they are to preach and what. The New Testament implies that as long as Church and State weed each in its own garden there will be a tolerable modus vivendi.

This was a novel insight, so novel as to be revolutionary. The world had never seen the like of it before. For all pre-Christian society is sacral. By the word sacral we mean bound together by a common religious loyalty. By sacral society we mean society held together by a religion to which all the members of that society are committed.

It was because the Jews of Jesus’ day were pre-Christian, and therefore sacralists in their conception of things, that the problem, “whether it is lawful to pay tribute to Caesar” seemed to them to be an insoluble problem. How could a man, they asked, be loyal to the political community by paying his taxes, without thereby being disloyal to the religious community, the Church. They, sacralists that they were, knew no answer to this question. It vexed them every time they tangled with it. And for that reason they confronted the Master with it, so that He too might be embarrassed by it and be hopelessly pinned in a corner. How great must have been their surprise at the ease with which Jesus, acting on the new insight He had come to convey, sailed through the dilemma with “Render unto Caesar the things that ae Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” In His way of thinking there wasn’t even any problem.

It is implied in the New Testament vision that Christianity is not a culture-creating thing but rather a culture-influencing one. Wherever the Gospel is preached society becomes composite; hence, since culture is the name given to the total spiritual heritage of an entire people, there can never be such a thing as a Christian culture; there can only be cultures in which the influence of Christianity is more or less apparent. The New Testament does not pit a “Christian culture” against a non-Christian culture; rather does it introduce a leaven into any existing culture into which it insinuates itself.

Early Christianity acted on the insight that Jesus had come to create “a people within a people”; it realized that it is by the act of faith that men become the Sons of God, with a sonship that is not simply continuous with the sonship that is by nature. . . Early Christianity’s world was peopled with folk who witness and folk who were witnessed to. It therefore conceived of a composite society, not a monolithic one.

Quotes from Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren. © 1964 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

The Logos

Why do we have four gospels? Wouldn’t it be enough to tell the story once? Evidently Matthew, Mark, Luke and John didn’t think so and the early church agreed that they all merited a place in the Holy Scriptures. Some skeptics have claimed to find discrepancies and disagreements in the accounts, but these all disappear when one understands what each writer was trying to do.

The Gospel of Mark was the first, a bare bones gospel, simply a recording of the memories of an eye witness of Jesus’ life. It is generally understood that the eye witness was Peter and that Mark merely wrote down Peter’s recollections.

Matthew’s gospel was written for the benefit of Jewish believers and seekers. He takes great care to show how Jesus was the true fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies.

Luke wrote as a Greek historian. His gospel provides a coherent and well documented account of Jesus’ life for the Greeks, who put no stock in Jewish prophecies but just wanted to know the facts.

John’s gospel is something else again. It was the last one written and begins by identifying Jesus as the Logos and has a much greater emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit than the other gospels.

Psalm 33:6 tells us ” By the word of the LORD were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.” The Book of Proverbs personifies the wisdom of God and in one place tells us: ” The LORD by wisdom hath founded the earth; by understanding hath he established the heavens” (Proverbs 3:19).

In the time of Jesus and the disciples, the Old Testament Scriptures were being read in a Greek translation (the Septuagint) where word in Psalm 33 read logos. The Greek understanding of logos would have included all the meaning of word, wisdom and understanding. To the Stoics, the Logos was the divine force that pervaded and upheld the universe.

John began his gospel by stating “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was nothing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. . . . And the Logos was made flesh and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”

These words affirm the Old Testament teachings, then show how they are embodied in Jesus Christ and make the bold statement that the one writing this saw the Logos with his own eyes. These same words tell the Greeks that the Logos, which their philosophers have endeavoured to understand, has a genuine historical existence and has come to earth and walked among men.

From this divinely inspired beginning, John goes on to tell the story of Jesus. As he is the last of the gospel writers, writing some years after the others, he takes great pains to include the fullness of Jesus’ teaching about the Holy Spirit, as the power, grace and leading of the Holy Spirit were essential for the church in continuing the work begun by Jesus.

Each of the gospel writers was reaching out to engage their surrounding culture in a transformative manner. They were not  trying to make the gospel less offensive. They were showing how the gospel was the answer to the aspirations of all people for a relationship with their Creator. The gospel was a direct challenge to all other religious and philosophical claims to provide a meaningful life, and thus aroused much opposition. At the same time it was the answer that fit the lock and opened the door that nothing else could open.

Cultural perspectives on youth and old age

Closely related to the North American orientation toward the future is the strong emphasis on youth. This can be seen in commercial advertising and entertainment — the old are rarely represented. At work the young are often thought to be more active and productive, and to hold more promise than do the elderly, despite their experience and sense of responsibility.

There are few attempts to involve the aged in the mainstream of the society. Once they retire, they are viewed as having little to contribute. And when they can no longer care for themselves, they are often placed in nursing homes, isolated from their offspring and cared for by non relatives.

This emphasis on youth is the exception rather than the rule around the world. In most societies old people are viewed positively as wise and experienced. They are shown respect, given places of honour and consulted about family and community decisions. There is no retirement from public life. In fact, retirement as we conceive of it now is a twentieth-century phenomenon found mainly in the west.

Paul G Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries © 1985 by Baker Books.

How long was Jesus in the tomb?

Matthew12:40 — For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Those are the words of Jesus, stating clearly that He would be in the tomb for three days and three nights. His crucifixion and burial took place on a Friday, the day before the Sabbath, and He rose early in the morning of Sunday, the first day of the week. How does that add up to three days and three nights?

Many people have wrestled with that question and concluded that the crucifixion and burial actually took place on a Thursday; I have even read some who claim it must have been Wednesday. These folks have done their calculations carefully and appear to have unassailable logic on their side. Obviously, the idea that Jesus died on Friday is just a figment of somebody’s imagination in the far distant past. Except . . .

Not everybody thinks like we do — not even in calculating the passage of time. When I began to learn French, I discovered that if I wanted to meet somebody a week from today I would have to say “in eight days.” If I said “in seven days” he would be there a day before I would. What is going on here? Well, I am writing this on a Wednesday and to the French mind it makes no sense to skip today when counting the days to next Wednesday. Today is not over yet, so I must count today and all the days up to and including next Wednesday. That makes eight days.

In the beginning that was incomprehensible, completely ridiculous, to my mind. Who ever heard of such a thing? Well, guess what? My way of thinking was equally baffling and harebrained to French-speaking people.

And French-speaking people aren’t the only ones who think like that — the writers of our Bible, Jews and Greeks, thought exactly the same way. For people who see things that way, it is perfectly logical that the period from late Friday afternoon to early Sunday morning perfectly fulfills the prophecy of three days and three nights.

Someone might object that there were only two nights, Friday and Saturday. That again depends on how we look at things. We say last night was Tuesday night, but I got to bed just after midnight so all my sleep happened after it became Wednesday. If something newsworthy happened during the night, a French language newspaper, in order to be precise, would describe it as the night of Tuesday to Wednesday.

The way we see things is so blindingly obvious to us that it never even occurs to us that other people might see things in a completely different way. A generation after the Vietnam war, Robert McNamara came to the stunning conclusion that “those people don’t think like we do.”

George W Bush led the USA into a war in Iraq, thinking that the people over there would be overjoyed that the USA had come to liberate them. France refused to join this adventure, knowing full well that the reaction of the people in Iraq would be much different than Mr. Bush expected. Things might have turned out better if the US had asked the advice of the French instead of vilifying them.

These profound differences in the way people view events around them are something we need to be aware of when we attempt to share the gospel. We have framed the gospel in terms that make sense according to the paradigms of our own culture. We should not be too quick to assume that people of another culture have understood what we told them and rejected it. In all likelihood, their first impression is that we are trying to convert them to our culture. That can serve as a roadblock to further attempts to share the gospel. It would be better to take the time to learn their way of thinking and frame the gospel in terms that fit their understanding.

Saskatchewan speak

We speak normal Canadian English here in Saskatchewan — for the most part. There are, however, a few words familiar to residents of this province, that are largely unknown elsewhere. A survey released a few days ago checked on how familiar same of these words are to Saskatchewanians.

We all know what a bunnyhug is — 96% of us anyway. It is a hooded sweatshirt, commonly called a hoodie in many other places. No one seems to know how the word originated but we all know what it is.

86% of us know that gibbled means broken or dysfunctional. This word appears to have originated 50 years ago among the employees of the poultry processing plant in Wynyard, derived from giblets.

Vi-Co was recognized by 77%, not so much by those under 35, but probably everyone over that age. Vi-Co used to be the best known brand of chocolate milk in this province and became almost a generic term for chocolate milk. That brand has not been produced for years.

76% know that matrimonial cake is a dessert which largely consists of mashed dates between layers of oatmeal, with some margarine, flour and brown sugar thrown in for good measure. It is delicious, not complicated to make, keeps well, and at one time was the standard dessert at wedding receptions for people of just about all ethnic and denominational persuasions.

73% recognized gotch (not gotcha) as another word for underwear.  I wasn’t one of them. Apparently it is of Ukrainian origin. People of Ukrainian descent were plentiful among the homesteaders 100 years ago, and more have been coming in recent years.

I will let this suffice as a brief introduction to Saskatchewan’s rich cultural heritage.

Foreign to Familiar

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The Delta flight was leaving on time. Three of us were strapped in, one next to the other, each finding it easy to make small talk. As the plane lifted off, so did our burdens of office work. We were off to Glorietta, New Mexico, for a week-long conference, and our minds were filled with thoughts of mountains and crisp air and a break from the Atlanta downtown routine.

“So, Sarah,” my aisle-seat colleague said in that chatty manner of a tourist on vacation, “tell me what it was like growing up in Israel.”

Of all conversation openers, this was my least favourite. I’d been hearing it ever since moving to the States to begin my university studies. But, being in the middle seat, I couldn’t escape.

My desire was to respond, “No, you first. Tell me what it was like growing up in a ranch-style house in suburbia.” What was there to say? And who cares anyway?

But I did answer . . . well, sort of. “It was great,” was the extent of my glib answer.

“No, I mean it, really,” she insisted. “What is the culture like over there?”

By the window sat Aida from Lebanon. She’d been in the States eight years and was much more of an expert on Middle Eastern culture than I was. But at the moment Aida seemed to be fascinated by the window. So I took up the challenge.

“Well, I grew up in a variety of cultures. The Jewish and Arab cultures are vastly different.”

“How so?” she asked.

“In the Jewish culture you say what you think. It’s direct, and you know where you stand with people.”

I glanced at her to see if she was still with me. She was, so I continued.

“The Arab culture, on the other hand, is much more indirect. It’s all about friendliness and politeness. If offered a cup of coffee, I say ‘No, thank you.’

“The host offers it again, and I decline again, with something like: ‘No, no, don’t bother yourself.’ He might offer a third time, and I’d reply, ‘No, I really don’t want any coffee, believe me.’

“Then my host serves the coffee, and I drink it.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” she said, incredulously.

“No, really,” I assured her. “You’re supposed to refuse the first few times. It’s the polite thing to do.”

“Then what if you really don’t want the coffee?” she asked.

“Well, there are idioms that you can use to say that you wouldn’t for any reason refuse their kind hospitality, and at some point in the future you’ll gladly join them in coffee, but at the moment you really can’t drink it.”

Now Aida got into the conversation. “Incredible! I didn’t know that!” she said, as our heads turned her way.

“Aida,” I replied, “what do you mean that you didn’t know that? You’re Lebanese, for heaven’s sake.”

“Yes,” she said, “but I mean that I didn’t know this was not normal. I’ve been in the United States eight years already, and did not know it was done differently here. That explains so much.

“I’ve been lonely since moving here, and now I know why. When people in the office would ask me if I wanted to go to lunch, I would say ‘no’ to be polite, fully expecting them to ask me again. When they didn’t and left without me, I thought they didn’t want me along and had asked only out of politeness. In my culture, it would have been too forward to say ‘yes’ the first time.

“For this reason, I’ve had few American friends. After all these years, now I know why.”

I sat there stunned. Pondering the sadness of her story, I said to myself, “No one should have to suffer like that simply because they don’t understand the culture of another.”

For the Aidas around the world, I have written this book.

Sarah A Lanier


This is the preface to Foreign to Familiar, which I referred to in a previous post. © 2000 by Sarah A Lanier. Used with permission.

The English book is published by McDougal Publishing of Hagerstown, Maryland. ISBN 1-58158-022-3

Editions in Arabic, French, German, Korean, Norwegian, Russian and Spanish are available from the writer at the following address:

Sarah A Lanier
P.O. Box 874Clarkesville GA  30523
USA

How adaptable can a flatlander be?

I am a flatlander, a native of Saskatchewan. The nickname refers to the flatness of our landscape, but there are other aspects of our character where the term applies too. I like people to just say what they have to say, with no long descriptive or flowery preambles. Sir or Ma’am sound artificial and phony to me. If anyone tries to tell me something in a round about way, only hinting at the message they want to get across, I’m not going to get the message. I don’t have the code book, it’s not part of my genetic or cultural heritage. Most likely, I won’t even catch on that they are hinting at something.

Now, our landscape is not completely flat and barren. I grew up, and now live once again, in the part of Saskatchewan that is called short grass prairie. The grass never grows very high, neither do the trees. But there is a lot going on that doesn’t meet the eye of someone speeding through on the freeway. An abundance of wildflowers grow on the seemingly barren prairies, though mostly close to the ground. There is abundant wildlife too, and I don’t just mean the mosquitoes.

In like manner, we may not appear to have very polished manners, but we are considerate and try to take care of one other. Like the the time I was riding a city bus in Moose Jaw and the driver saw in his mirror that someone had come to the bus stop just after he had passed it. He stopped the bus, backed up and let the man on. They then traded friendly insults and the man sat down and began to visit with the driver. You see, it just wouldn’t do to make a man feel that you had gone out of your way to help him, even though that is exactly what you did.

How does it work then when a flatlander moves to a place where the culture is altogether different? Well, we can adjust, but there are so many little things that are so different that it may take a long time. The first step is learning that other people’s minds are not wired like mine. What seems normal to them and what seems normal to me, are so different that it takes quite a while to even catch on that I’m giving people an altogether different impression than what I thought.

While in Scott’s Parable Christian Store on Tuesday I found a book that I wish I could have read more than twenty years ago, before we moved to Québec. Unfortunately, it wasn’t even written then.

The book is Foreign to Familiar by Sarah A Lanier and it is a primer in understanding the differences between cultures. It does not give an in-depth look at all the different cultures, just enough information that one will know that there are differences and be alert to the possibility that one is not picking up, or sending, the right signals. It would be good to have that much understanding in advance, so that one does not blunder on, assuming that the other person is the problem.

Ms. Lanier differentiates between cold-climate cultures and hot-climate cultures. Evidently I belong to a cold-climate culture. She also speaks of high-context and low-context cultures. High context cultures are those with an abundance of unspoken rules governing behaviour. I don’t think that’s me. I would highly recommend this book for anyone planning a mission term, also for those thinking of any kind of outreach to immigrants in our local communities.

Once again, the book is Foreign to Familiar, the author is Sarah A. Lanier, and it is published bu McDougal Publishing of Hagerstown, Maryland. The ISBN is 1-58158-022-3. It’s not a big book, not very expensive, a quick read. But it will probably need to be read more than once. It could be life-changing.

This blog’s first anniversary

June 13 was the first anniversary of this blog, a milestone that suggests a need to reflect on what I am doing here and where I want to go.

As a side note, June 13 was also the date of our daughter’s fourteenth wedding anniversary.  That is an event much more worthy of celebration.  It brought a wonderful young man into the family as son-in-law and brought our daughter from far away Arkansas to within a couple miles of us in Saskatchewan.  And it has brought us four unique and charming grandchildren.  That is a far greater accomplishment than my scribblings over the past year.

Nevertheless, for years I have been carrying around in my head things that I wanted to write about.  It seemed for a long time that I was more talented in dreaming and procrastinating than in actually writing.   Some things did get written over the years, some notes were made, but so much was left unsaid.

So much is still unsaid.  Perhaps the question to ask myself is why do I feel they need to be said?  As someone who discovered the Anabaptist / Mennonite faith in my early adult years, I feel I have a perspective that can be helpful to those both within and without Anabaptist / Mennonite circles.

As I studied the historic Anabaptist faith, I found it to embody a spiritual vitality and authenticity that was lacking in other churches with which I was acquainted.  This faith, by itself, is accessible to anyone, anywhere.  Unfortunately, this faith has become encrusted with the barnacles of a centuries old Germanic Mennonite culture, which is not accessible to anyone not born in that culture.   This culture has some attractive features, as well as some attributes that appear rather strange to an outsider.  It is much better if converts to the Mennonite faith do not feel a compulsion to also adopt the Mennonite culture, for the simple reason that such a thing is impossible and will lead to endless frustrations.

There it is; I think I have finally put into words my motivation in beginning this blog.  Call it my mission statement if you wish.

I want to thank all who have read and followed my posts over the past year.  Please bear with me as I try to clarify my thinking and streamline my writing in the coming months.  Your comments are always welcome.

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