Note: This article was originally written from Beirut, Lebanon by Georges Houssney in 2011.
This article is not meant to be a comprehensive position on the impact of the gospel on other cultures. It is a critique of missionary practices that give culture more value than it deserves. Certainly not everything in any culture is evil or bad or needs to change. This issue will be discussed in course of time in future articles.
“Islamic culture is shrouded with mystique and packaged in intrigue.” So writes Valerie Hoffman in her book, “Sufism, Mystics, and Saints in Modern Egypt.”
Lebanon, the country of my birth, is no longer what it was when I was young. I miss the donkey I used to ride every morning to fetch water from the spring in the center of my village. I miss the oil lanterns that lit our evenings. I miss sitting with the rest of the family, relatives and neighbors around glowing coals heaped in a deep bronze fireplace in the center of the room. My mother, grandma, and my uncle took turns telling us stories of old times. I miss hearing the rooster crow at dawn and the sound of animals braying, mooing, and barking.
I miss the lush landscape with a few stone homes scattered in the valley, now replaced by tall concrete buildings. I miss the narrow dirt roads which were made for people and animals but now are littered with cars and trucks.
Weddings were my favorite. They lasted several days, with dancing and music all night. Everyone came without invitation and there was plenty of food for all.
And I do miss my first car, the Mini-Minor-a tiny box on wheels. I am nostalgic every time I see its successor, the Mini Cooper. What I don’t miss about it though is how many times it broke down on the Beirut -Tripoli highway and I had to push it to get it started again.
Whatever happened to the culture of the 50’s and 60’s?
The reality is this: those days are gone and they will never return. People are driving cars on asphalt roads, drawing water from taps inside their homes and using electricity for almost everything they do.
And guess what? In 40 years, the children of the current generation who will leave the village and go overseas like I did will return and have many things to miss. They will not miss donkeys because most of them have never seen one. They will not miss oil lanterns because they have never used one. So what will they miss? If I am around in 40 years, I will answer that question. But right now I cannot envision anyone missing this modern culture, which could never compare to my romantic memories of the culture of my past.
Sooner or later, new technologies will surely make cell phones, iPods, and laptops obsolete. Perhaps this is what the next generation will miss.
Last Sunday I met an American woman in a church in Beirut who told me that her daughter majored in Middle Eastern studies and spent some time in Cairo. She was so fascinated with Islam that now she is dating a Muslim and is working on becoming a Muslim. I asked her what she thought happened. The answer was: “I guess she found Islam fascinating.”
Fascination with ancient cultures has become part of the fabric of the Western mindset. Western missionaries often romanticize Islamic symbols: Veiled women, men in traditional garb carrying daggers and riding camels, pictures of minarets towering above fancy mosques and desert scenes. One former missionary to the Middle East, after being back in the US for a few years, wrote that his family misses the call to prayer and wished there was a mosque in their neighborhood in America. Missionary journals, newsletters, and magazines almost always have a cover page featuring primitive people dressed in traditional clothes, even though they maybe the minority in their countries.
A look at the covers of books on Islam, missionary newsletters, and magazines reveals much of what Westerners find attractive. They typically depict Islamic art with intrigue and extremely positive tones. I have yet to see a book on Islam with pictures of BMW’s, men in suits, career women behind desks, women in short dresses or jeans, or men and women in revealing swimwear on the beaches of Turkey. Rarely do you see photos of young Muslims using computers or carrying cellphones.
My daughter lives in Egypt, but is visiting Lebanon for her Christmas break. Today we were having lunch in a Beirut fast food joint when her mom and I asked her to share some of her observations of Egyptian culture. She did not hesitate to tell us how disjointed Muslim families are, contrary to what she has read in missiological literature about the closeness of the Muslim home. She spoke about the social ills of polygamy and the shocking frequency of divorce. One new insight to me was a comment she made about the mindset of married men. Since they are allowed to marry up to four women at a time, they feel no guilt about a lifetime of flirting with — and dating — younger women. Do they have any consideration for how their wives feel?
Ironically, the same missionaries who are intrigued with old-fashioned cultures abroad frown on traditions in their own Western countries. In the USA, for instance, each generation distances itself from the hair styles and fashion trends of the previous decade, and would only wear their parent’s clothes for Halloween. Yet when I have taken some Americans shopping in markets in Arab countries, they are fascinated by people wearing long robes in the streets. They often rush to buy these traditional clothes to show them to their families and friends. In missionary conventions you will see many missionaries dressed with traditional costumes of other cultures. They would not appear in outdated clothing from their own country.
When I first came to the USA, a major American supporter tried to persuade me to dress with a gown like an Arab, carry my Oud (a Middle Eastern instrument) and go around from church to church to raise funds for my ministry. “You will raise a lot of money” he insisted. When he failed in his effort, he threatened to withhold support from me until I did it. He made me feel like an Arab specimen. I explained to him that I have been wearing suits since my childhood, and that I do not need to fake my looks. I tried to convince him that I depend on the Lord for support and not on my cultural intrigue. I added that the Muslim world is moving away from tradition, and that I do not need to represent the traditional Arabs but the majority of modernized ones. He was so disappointed that he stopped supporting me.
The Muslim world is rapidly moving toward modernization. Yes, there is a recent surge in Islamic fundamentalism, and we see more Muslim women wearing the veil and more Muslim men wearing long beards. But, in many Muslim countries, for every one of those there are at least eight or nine who are dressed in jeans and tennis shoes.
Understandably, primitive culture is intriguing. This is one strong factor affecting many so-called contextualized missionary methods. Some missionaries are working harder on preserving the culture than members of that culture themselves. They behave as though it is a crime to tamper with the culture.
But is culture really our business? Are we cultural or social engineers? Or are we preachers of the gospel, the one that has the power to save, to change, to transform individuals inside out and turn cultures upside down?
Jesus and Paul are accused by Insider Movement proponents as having preserved various elements of the Jewish culture. They claim to have biblical support for this, but is this really what Jesus came for? Did he not come to turn the world upside down?
Did you hear what Jesus said? Hear some more:
Tonight I was with a few converts in Beirut who have fled their countries. For some of them, these words of Jesus encourage them to press on, despite the rejection of their families. A Saudi believer wrote me today asking me to pray for the salvation of her family, who has threatened her and now refuses to talk with her. One dear brother who is a leader of a ministry cannot go home to see his family, after years of separation.
Dare we tell these people they are suffering unnecessarily? Paul certainly would not. He will in fact affirm them with his vibrant voice: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him,” And “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his suffering becoming like him in his death…” Philippians 1: 29; 3:10.
Culture is a unifying force for the majority of a people. At the same time it is a powerful factor in keeping people closed to the gospel and causing separation between those who conform and those who don’t. Muslims facing Christ find themselves in conflict with their own cultures and religious practices. They simply cannot conform. Paul admonishes them: “Do not be conformed…but be transformed…” Romans 12:2
Until Christian workers are willing to give up their admiration of primitive culture and are willing to see themselves as change agents, they remain ineffective for the kingdom. Primarily we are change agents of heart, mind, and soul. Our message is that of salvation of the lost souls, snatching them out of the fire and the hands of Satan, and preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins. We must aim to see Jesus born in the hearts of men and women who then would become children of God by receiving Jesus as their Savior and Lord. We cannot do that when we are paralyzed with fear of tampering with culture.
But transformation in these areas will unquestionably cause a change in ones social and familial status. It will undoubtedly cause a transformation that would distinguish them from mainstream culture. Internal change, by necessity, brings about external changes in behavior, much of which is described as cultural.
We do Muslims a disservice if we deny them the truth of the gospel and its transforming power. Muslims will not be saved within their religion. They must see the spiritual bankruptcy of Islam and its deception before they begin to consider alternatives. True love means telling the truth, and calling them to peace with God, to reconciliation, to eternal life, to forgiveness of sins. If people (Western and Eastern alike) are not willing to give up their culture for Jesus, they do not deserve Jesus. Jesus deserves our entire lives.
Great article. I have spent more than three decades in a major Christian organization that deals directly with many cultures. Our fascination with “Primitive” cultures has lead to a problem you did not mention – because we devalue the emerging urban and national cultures where we work, we have a great deal of difficulty working in partnership with churches which operate in that context. In fact, I have heard colleagues say that urban, educated Christians are not really African, or Cameroonian, or Senegalese, etc. Because we devalue those emerging national cultures, we do not take time to understand them – after all, only the primitive cultures are worthy of study and respect! So our efforts are partnership fail, or are fraught with problems. ALL cultures are worthy of respect, study and empathy, even when they are not exotic, or old. After all, exotic is only in our heads.
Excellent article. Excellent subject. This really is a problem among missionaries and even more of a problem among secular people here in the US. I am always shocked at people who hate “fundamentalist” christians, but yet will defend Islam. To say they are ignorant of the issues is a gross understatement. MI think that much of the post-modern theories going on in the West will end up bearing some very bad and dangerous fruit. Two of the modern gurus Nietzsche and Foucault, both had problems with Mental illness and died with STDs. Why we as a nation want to push their ideas I don’t know.
As far as missionaries are concerned it is even more dangerous. I know of several families which have disintegrated because of this. While we should be aware of the opposite extreme of hating the culture and withdrawing ourselves, we need to be on guard about being intrigued by islam. Enjoy Arab culture! I do miss sitting in a garden until 2 am just talking and having fun. Like George the weddings and also the markets beat anything here in sunny South Florida. However, don’t be blind to the problems in society. In America we won’t to be transparent and show our problems. In Islam that is definitely not the case. Until you get to know the language and the people very well you won’t see what is really going on.
Wow!! Thanks for this confirmation. My big surprise is those who think Islamic culture is neutral or good, do not really know it. Living in an Arab capital for 10 years or 20 or more does not mean you understand it. Main problem is many see other culture with a preconceived lens. As soon as they remove that thick lens of preconceived ideas and strategies, they will be able to see things as they are. You strike me as one who has opened your eyes to what is actually going on in the culture. Sadly many westerners are stuck on their knowledge for decades.
Having said that my purpose is not to show the evil in a culture. There are good things in any culture as you have agreed. My purpose is to help the missionary movement see things through the eyes of Jesus who knows the heart and he died to transform it. Many do not realize that it cost Jesus his life to save us from the inside out, not only as individuals but as groups as well. Thank you again. Keep reading and responding.
Thanks for the article Georges. Your daughter’s observation about the internal dysfunction of Muslim marriages and families is also very evident where I live in the Arabian Peninsula. I couldn’t agree more – we don’t need to pretend that Arab Muslim families are some kind of role model, the fact is, they aren’t. Just yesterday I had a conversation with a Muslim friend who was telling me a younger woman was coming on to him and his wife was scared, because it would be his right to marry her under Islam. I appealed to Creation and reminded him that God made Adam and Eve in the beginning, and therefore polygamy was a distortion of God’s norm. He just sighed and agreed with me as he considered the pain it would cause his children if he takes this young girl on. He then said, “Our families are the most messed up families you will ever see, the relationships between men and women and parents and children are always terrible.” And I said, “Why do you think that is? Could it be because the system you live by is broken?” Again he sighed and agreed.
As you said, all cultures have good and bad in them, things that honor God and things that dishonor him. No culture is intrinsically better than another. But let’s stop pretending that Islamic culture is some kind of moral model society for the rest of the world when in fact it is anything but.
I would hope that those who favor a more contextualized approach to ministry would be actively working towards helping their disciples throw off the things from their Islamic culture that hinder the race they are now running with Jesus, even if it’s painful and causes rejection.
…”If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8.34).
“Finally, the whole way of Jesus was to leave heaven, take on a human form and and become fully 100% part of a Jewish culture. God is not Jewish. Jesus didn’t need to become a Jew – but he did, in every way. Can’t think of a better example of someone loving a culture than Jesus” (Carl Medearis).
It is a myopic focus on culture that drastically narrows the scope of the incarnation and what really is achieved by the hypo-static union. Whether one is convinced of the doctrine of a limited or an unlimited atonement, that Christ is fully both High Priest and the Lamb without blemish makes his mission to that of HUMANITY irrespective of culture:
“This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle ( I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.” (1 Timothy 2.3-7).
Paul is writing to Timothy in Ephesus, probably a very different place than that of Israel 30 years before. Yet Paul writes, “…between God and mankind…”, and, “…a ransom for all people….” Carl’s point of view serves an unbiblical bias that prioritizes culture over Christ. For proof of this all anyone needs to do is read over his interview on this website and it will become obvious to the reader that his approach to missions so strongly favors a people that he has allowed the religion of that people (Islam) to assimilate biblical faith.
“Jesus didn’t need to become a Jew – but he did, in every way (Carl). ” This is like saying ‘God doesn’t need to fulfill his word – but he did, in every way.’ Carl’s is a proposition that is oblivious to the prophetic nature of God’s word and it is dismissive of God’s moral nature, that he is faithful:
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful (Hebrews 10.23).
I thank God that by becoming human he did not forsake himself, his holiness. He curbed nothing. The truth about humanity was not assimilated by his union with humanity. On the contrary, it is instructive to read just how emphatic Jesus was about us becoming like him:
This is well-written. I, too, have seen many missionaries (and many local American Christians) who fantasize about the Muslim world – particularly the Nobel Nomads – the Bedouin. I probably had that image as a teenager when I first felt God’s call to the Arab world.
But that’s probably simply an overstatement to prove a point. I’m not sure that I can think of any missionaries who are so “fascinated” by Muslim or Arab culture that they’d want their son or daughter to become Muslim or marry a Muslim (certainly not the Medearis family).
Similar to Georges’ story, our 18 year old daughter commented last year when she heard the call to prayer and some video that she “missed that sound.” But she didn’t miss it because it was a mosque (and we for sure don’t want one next door to us here), but she missed it because it reminded her of home.
I would say that my experience with many other missionaries (that I’ve known since I’ve been in the Arab world from 1983 till now), has been the opposite. They don’t love anything about Arab or Muslim culture. They are good at “doing ministry” from the outside in – I call it “hit and run evangelism” but they are not connected to the culture at all.
When I train new people going out to the field, one of the things I’ll say is that they will know when they’ve gone deep enough into the mindset of the culture and a love for their new people, when it’s Friday night after a long week of work/ministry and they WANT to call a local friend to hang out with to relax (rather than another foreigner).
I think a basic flaw in some of the writing on this site is the following: Many of the verses you use to “prove” whatever point you’re trying to make are about Jesus and how he was hard on people – not all soft and easy like those Insider guys – are actually what he said to his OWN people. He was the hardest on HIS religious leaders. The Jewish elite. He was next hardest on his 12 disciples. Next hardest on the next ring of followers. And so on… He was NOT hard on the religious leaders of the Samaritans. Or the other pagan tribes. He did NOT call the Roman and Greeks god out and challenge them – or their followers.
Jesus seemed surprisingly – dare I say – tolerant, of the “outsiders” and of their beliefs and gods. I often hear people use Jesus’ railings on his own people as a proof that we should be more straight up with Muslims and confront them with the hard parts of the gospel. While there is certainly a time for that, it’s not what we see Jesus modeling.
Finally, the whole way of Jesus was to leave heaven, take on a human form and and become fully 100% part of a Jewish culture. God is not Jewish. Jesus didn’t need to become a Jew – but he did, in every way. Can’t think of a better example of someone loving a culture than Jesus.
Very rich article, Georges.
Thought about the text of Romans 12:2 “Do not be conformed…but be transformed…” Isn’t it something that this comes after Paul’s statement in v. 1 “Present your bodies as living …” Choose 1 of the following:
a. seekers after personal peace and affluence—the American way
b.. seekers for respect at any cost—the honor culture way
c. sacrifices…..those things that have the smell of death to the world but a fragrant aroma to Christ
It is totally logical then that Paul says in the verse that you cited, that we should not be conformed= pressed into the mold or literally shaped according to the schematic diagram of the world, but to be transformed=the thing a butterfly does when it comes out of the cocoon, literally it is metamorphosed.
Your article hits the nail on the head, and asks indirectly, “Have you seen any butterflies flying around with their cocoons hanging on their wings.” As the French say, “c’est pas logique”—it’s not logical.
Keep on keeping on.
Isn’t it interesting (sad, really) that it is so easy/common to assume that having friendship with the world and thus enmity with God only applies to our own culture?
I needed the encouragement and conviction of your post. Thanks Georges.