A Plea for Cultural Awareness

September 22, 2021

We all have a particular outlook through which we interpret life. Like a pair of glasses, our perspective alters how we see everything around us, but unlike glasses, most of the time we don’t realize how much it’s actually affecting our perception.

The culture in which we grow up is a potent contributor to the formation of perspective. Most Americans would say that their beliefs are informed by truth, potentially from their interpretation of the Bible or maybe by well-reasoned logic and education. Nonetheless, whether we acknowledge it or not, we interpret the world through a filter of Western culture and values. Two significant elements of western interpretation include a guilt-innocence framework and emphasis on the individual.

A Western Lens

Americans often express morality in legal terms. We define wrong-doing, or sin, in terms of breaking a rule and thereby incurring guilt. Conversely, we describe goodness in terms of innocence, or following the rules perfectly. We also focus more on personal achievement than on fulfilling communal roles. American individualism aligns with the guilt-innocence framework well because a defendant’s guilt is objectively measured and determined in a court of law. Did he or did he not do it?

Failing to acknowledge this western lens can result in big problems. To show how our culture affects the way we understand truth, consider this gospel narrative:

God made Adam and Eve perfectly innocent, but gave them one important rule: don’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve broke this rule, marring their innocence. Because of their disobedience, sin came into the world. God is a just judge, so he had to punish them and send them out of the garden of Eden. However, because God is also merciful and loving, he promised to send salvation into the world in order that people could be saved from eternal punishment and separation from him. God sent his son Jesus to live a perfect life and die on a cross in their place. He paid the debt we owed, and three days later came back from the dead so that those who believe in him and repent of their sin can be declared righteous and inherit eternal life.

You may be thinking, “What could possibly be wrong with this way of sharing the gospel? It says exactly what the Bible says.” While there is nothing untrue about this version of the gospel, it is shaped by the western guilt-innocence lens. If you were to reread it, specifically looking for legal language, you might be surprised at how often words like guilt, innocence, judge, rule, and punishment are used. You might also notice that the narrative is fairly individualistic. Good evangelism strives to emphasize the parts of the gospel that align with a particular cultural context, but it is important to be able to recognize those elements that are contextualized.

Honor-Shame Cultures

In contrast to America, many countries in Africa operate under an honor-shame culture that emphasizes community over the individual. Honor relates to your position in the community-- how you see yourself and how others see you. Shame often represents a separation between the individual and their community. It is very important to acknowledge these different mindsets in how we relate to people in other cultures, especially when it comes to how we address important topics like the gospel. Below is an alternative example for how we might frame a gospel conversation in a way that relates better to an honor-shame culture:

God made Adam and Eve to be in perfect communion with him and each other. In pride, Adam and Eve did not honor God, and ate from the one tree he told them not to. They shamed God and fragmented their relationship with each other. Because they could no longer be in a relationship with a holy God, they were sent out of the garden. But God is merciful and loving, so he promised to send his son to restore honor and take away their shame. Now, because of Jesus, we no longer have to be separated from God or feel shame. We get to be part of God’s community, the church, and one day we will live in perfect communion together with him again.

This version of the gospel narrative is just as truthful as the first version, but it frames the ideas in honor-shame language. By educating ourselves on cultural differences, we can speak to people in ways that resonate with their deepest concerns. This point holds true in all aspects of international work, not just evangelism. The gospel narrative provides a good model, however, for how we describe right and wrong and frame problems and solutions. When dealing with these powerful topics, we ought to make every effort to speak clearly, compassionately, and compellingly.