Saturday, April 30, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day - the danger of assuming relevance

“There are probably levels of ethnocentrism, moving from the narrow collectivism of my family, my village, to my clan, my state, my country or my race. There may be dozens of ever-expanding circles as the ripples in the pond expand outward.”

“...the ethnocentric leader has limitations. As pastors and missionaries reach out to the rest of the world, they will do so from the perspective of the leadership values of their own culture and assume that what they have learned about successful churches will apply to all cultures. This attitude can cause tensions with global church-to-church partnerships. Because of their limited perspectives, crosscultural workers assume that their cultural values are biblical and universal. The ethnocentric pastor of a megachurch in one culture will assume that the principles of success in his or her church are effective in any culture.”
James E. Plueddemann, Leading Across Cultures

In Bennett's terms, what Plueddemann is identifying as the problem of ethnocentric religious leadership is located in the last of three ethnocentric phases in the DMIS model, minimization (see This seems to be a significant problem for people of faith, because in attempting to be true to God and the Scriptures, we can easily wrap up what is assumed to be "absolute" and "eternal" (i.e., from God) with our cultural ways and perspectives.

The question is, can we escape our ethnocentrism, move on to a different way of understanding and interacting with cultural difference, that will enable us to relate more positively, more effectively, with peoples of other cultures? 

Friday, April 29, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day - Mac or Windows?

This quote is a bit long, but addresses the question of whether we are (culturally) more similar or more different:

"Just like computers, we are all programmed. … humans have a ‘cultural programming’ they can’t operate without but that operates largely outside of awareness.

How important is our cultural programming?
Macintosh or Windows operating systems look similar at first glance. Both have monitors you look at, with a ‘desktop’ holding a few icons. Both use a mouse and keyboard for input devices. Both have cords and wires coming out the back of a plastic central box that is the core of the computer. Both use printers. Both accomplish the same tasks. You could argue that the two systems are basically the same, with the same ‘look and feel.’
In some ways, Mac and Windows systems can communicate well enough with each other, too. When I send e-mails from my Mac, I don’t have to be concerned about whether the recipients have Mac or Windows computers. They can use whatever system they want to open the e-mail at their end.
But try putting a Mac program into a Windows computer and you’ll get an error message, because at the programming level the operating systems are significantly different.
This analogy applies to humans. A lot of participants in my cross-cultural programs seem to think that people all around the world are basically the same, and at first glance we do indeed seem similar. For example, people basically look the same (we are all human), have the same concerns (health, safety, food shelter, etc.), and experience the same emotions (love, anger, fear, hatred, etc.). And, like computers, we are usually able to communicate, at least on the surface, across cultures. We send letters, faxes, and e-mails; we talk on the phone and sometimes communicate face to face.
But at a deeper level, people around the world do have significantly different cultural programming, just like computers do at the operating system level. Try to run an American-style business meeting (Americans will want to get straight to business, use people’s first names as though they’ve been friends for years, dress and speak informally, move quickly, take risks, etc.) with European partners (some Europeans may want to get to know one another a bit before talking ‘money,’ perhaps feel more comfortable using titles and last names or at least more polite ways of addressing one another, dress stylishly, move cautiously to avoid risks, even be given more historical grounding) and you’ll see that not everyone has the same ‘operating system.’
There are differences within cities, where each neighborhood can have its own feel, and growing up on the ‘other side of the tracks’ within a city can mean growing up in a totally different world.
If this is true, it must follow that daily life in Paris is probably not exactly like daily life in Calcutta. A resident of Calcutta is culturally programmed quite differently from a Parisian. At the surface level, it’s easy to see: East Indians and the French dress differently because they live in areas of different weather patterns; they eat different food, use different transportation, enjoy different leisure activities, and so forth.

Deeper down, they may define family or marriage differently, may have divergent religious beliefs, and may not share similar knowledge and opinions on a variety of topics.

Deeper still, they may have different core values: friendship, convictions that are very strongly held and may not change as long as they live (e.g., humility, face, self-reliance), and so forth. At even deeper cultural programming levels, they probably have what amounts to quite different worldviews. They may view time as abundant or scarce or assume that a god is in charge of their fate or that they determine their own destiny."
Brooks Peterson, Cultural Intelligence

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day - Similar or Different?

“I don’t find it useful to minimize cultural differences. Nor do I find it useful to exaggerate them. The world may be drifting toward similarity in some ways, but it is certainly maintaining distinctness in other ways. I don’t find it realistic to talk about a ‘world culture,’ and I am horrified at the idea of cultural homogenization because I’m fascinated by cultural differences. So I recommend that internationally focused professionals expect, prepare for, and embrace cultural difference. Then it’s possible to be pleasantly surprised when encountering cultural similarities. This is far better than expecting only similarities and being shocked by unanticipated differences.”
Brooks Peterson, Cultural Intelligence

“It is dangerous, though, to overemphasize cultural differences. In the deepest sense, human beings are more alike than different. Physically we have similar DNA, blood type, bone structure, facial features and thousands of other characteristics. Socially we have similar needs for belonging, acceptance, security and fulfillment. Cognitively our differences are variations on a limited number of themes. Spiritually we are formed in the image of God, with the special breath of God. We have the ability to know and love God. The paradox is that all human beings are mostly alike, yet each is distinct.”
James E. Plueddemann, Leading Across Cultures 

Are people more alike, or more different? How do these two authors view the relationship between similarity and difference? Do they agree with each other?

Cultural difference exists. Everyone who is beyond Bennett's stage of "Denial" recognizes that (on "Denial" of cultural difference, see But similarity also exists. The question is, are people more similar or more different? And how does one balance seeing similarity with recognizing difference? 

In Bennett's framework for looking at how we experience cultural difference, the third and last stage of Ethnocentrism, "Minimization," is one in which people assume that similarity between people is greater than the difference. This stage is ethnocentric, though, and problematic (if not dangerous) for intercultural relations, because in minimizing difference we project our own culture onto others, assuming they are basically like us, and that what works for us will work for everyone else as well (see

The question is, what is it to move beyond an ethnocentric experience and view of difference (and similarity), to a deeper, richer, more positive (what Bennett calls ethnorelative) experience of difference? And how does the movement into a deeper appreciation of difference, affect our view of similarity between peoples, what people have in common?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day - are you insular?

“people rarely say, ‘Gee – I’m really closed-minded. I don’t know how to talk to foreigners, and I’m suspicious of almost everyplace in the world outside my own hometown!” 

“The term insularity means ‘having a narrow, provincial attitude about anything unfamiliar or different’ – and implies wearing blinders.”
(Brooks Peterson, Cultural Intelligence)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Culture Poem of the Day - "I Feel Sorry for Jesus"

I'm going to repost this poem, shared by AmelMag in a comment, because it's worth thinking about.

I Feel Sorry for Jesus
By Naomi Shihab Nye

People won’t leave Him alone.
I know He said, wherever two or more
are gathered in my name…
But I bet some days He regrets it.

Cozily they tell you what he wants
and doesn’t want
as if they just got an e-mail.
Remember “Telephone,” that pass-it-on game

where the message changed dramatically
by the time it rounded the circle?
People blame terrible pieties on Jesus.

They want to be his special pet.
Jesus deserves better.
I think He’s been exhausted
for a very long time.

He went into the desert, friends.
He didn’t go into the pomp.
He didn’t go into
the golden chandeliers

and say, the truth tastes better here.
See? I’m talking like I know.
It’s dangerous talking for Jesus.
You get carried away almost immediately.

I stood in the spot where He was born.
I closed my eyes where He died and didn’t die.
Every twist of the Via Dolorosa
was written on my skin.

And that makes me feel like being silent
for Him, you know? A secret pouch
of listening. You won’t hear me
mention this again.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day - Have we done something to Jesus?

[Rewritten after further reflection]

“We have reduced ourselves to religions, to denominations, to confessions…instead of following my Palestinian compatriot from Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth.” (Elias Chacour)

“Once every hundred years Jesus of Nazareth meets Jesus of the Christians in a garden among the hills of Lebanon. And they talk long; each time Jesus of Nazareth goes away saying to Jesus of the Christians, ‘my friend, I fear we shall never, never agree’.” (Kahlil Gibran)

It is interesting that these two Arab Christians - one a Palestinian (Israeli) Melkite priest, and the other Lebanese - i.e., both from the area where Jesus lived his life on earth - should suggest that "we" (whoever we are, and I think this would include both Christians and Muslims, who have their own "take" on Jesus) have done something to or with Jesus, that has distanced our understanding (and experience?) of him from who he actually is.

To the degree that this might be so, I would suggest that it is at least partially due to the fact that as cultural beings, we understand and define reality in light of our sociocultural setting and existence and historical vantage point. Thus, there are different "Christian" perspectives on Jesus (currently and through history), ranging from Orthodox to Catholic to various Protestant (including evangelicals) to liberals.

I find myself wondering, though, is there really a problem (and what is it)? The New Testament teaching on the Incarnation – that “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” – indicates that Jesus (the word of God) came into this world in a particular cultural context (as a 1st Century Palestinian Jew); and there is a basis for believing that Jesus continues to enter into different cultural contexts, transforming people and those contexts from within (e.g., E. Stanley Jones’ emphasis on Jesus walking “the Indian Road”; the fact in the New Testament that Gentiles did not have to change to become outwardly Jewish in order to follow Jesus – they could follow him in their cultural context; and the fact that in Revelation it pictures people from “every tribe and tongue and nation worshiping God,” apparently with their cultural distinctives).

I’m not suggesting that Jesus is whoever we define him to be, or that we should not keep reading the New Testament and talking with others who claim to know him, to grow toward a more clear understanding. And I’m not sure that I agree with Gibran that there is such a thing as “Jesus of the Christians.” There definitely is such as thing as Jesus as perceived by and conceived of by Christians (and by others), but this is to say something not about Jesus himself, but about us and our perceptions.

If Jesus does exist, and is who the New Testament pictures him to be (the living and life-giving word of God, come into this world, crucified but risen and alive today, and still present and at work in the world), he is quite capable of “taking care of himself,” manifesting himself in different cultural contexts and working through (and when necessary in spite of) the different ways people conceive of him.

Jesus does not belong to us, and is not contained in any of our boxes (one might say, he is not a Christian). I’m reminded of the statement in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, that Aslan “is not a tame lion.”

Monday, April 11, 2011

Where Will the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions Lead?

I have recently visited both Tunisia and Egypt, two countries I lived in for a number of years. There are of course numerous differences between the two countries, in population (number of people, plus the fact that Egypt has always had a sizeable Christian minority), urbanization, literacy, religious practice, and other areas, but I was struck by an issue that popped up in both places, in the form of graffiti.

In both places, patriotism (in the form of lots of flags and graffiti highlighting the flag) was in prominent display.  In addition, and more specifically, in Tunisia, I saw graffiti that read “Tunisian = Muslim + Christian + Jew": 

Tunisian People = Muslim + Christian + Jew
In Egypt, a sign that read, “Don’t say we are Muslims, not Christians – we are all Egyptians” (unfortunately, I didn’t manage to get a picture of this one), and graffiti highlighting a close relationship between Muslims and Christians in Egypt:

The underlying issue that this graffiti is addressing is one of whether the emphasis coming out of the revolutions, in creating new governments, will be on religion – i.e., emphasizing the Muslim identity of the majority of the people – or on the nation / national boundaries – i.e., emphasizing common identity as Tunisians or as Egyptians, national unity, and downplaying religious differences.

One Nation .. One People (?)
This is a key issue, especially in Egypt (with a large percentage of Christians). The question for Muslims in both Tunisia and Egypt is, is it possible for them to create or emphasize or demonstrate a religious identity that allows them on the national level to embrace (be inclusive of) others who do not share their religion?

And for the record, this is not just a Muslim issue – it is easy to find examples around the world (including the West, and countries with a “Christian” majority) that illustrate the same tension between religious commitment and national commitment, and the same question, whether those with strong religious commitment are able to create and live out a religious identity that allows them on the national level to embrace others of other faiths (or none).

Given all the strife in the world today that is centered on religion, this is a critical question for all of us, whatever our religious faith and whatever our nationality. I’m hoping that the forces for unity in Tunisia and Egypt are stronger than the forces for exclusion.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day

‎"I am the son of the road, my country is the caravan, my life the most unexpected of voyages" (Amin Maalouf)