I’m raising four teenagers. So, y’know. Maybe you know how to pray for me?
But one of the techniques that’s helped in dealing with occasionally/chronically angry kids is to ask myself about what’s beneath their anger.
Can I muscle past the glare or sarcasm or disrespect to what’s being trampled on? To the emotion beneath the anger?
It reminds me to approach life as a listener. (Like most homo sapiens, I frequently need this.)
But it’s helped in cross-cultural relationships, too.
Finding the “Peace Child”
Maybe you’ve heard of Don and Carol Richardson, who in 1962 took their seven-month-old with them to share Jesus with the cannibalistic Sawi tribe of New Guinea.
Don immersed himself in learning the complex language, and began working to teach them about salvation in Jesus. But the cultural barriers made this seemingly impossible, especially because of the value the culture placed on treachery and deception. As he learned the language and lived with the people, he became more aware of the gulf that separated his Christian worldview from the worldview of the Sawi.
….During this time, the village Don and Carol were living in was attacked by an enemy tribe. Weeks of fighting ensued, and the Richardsons were considering leaving. Motivated to stop the fighting, the chief of Don’s tribe paid the price of peace: in a ceremony, the chief took his own infant son and placed him in the arms of his adversary. The child would live with the enemy tribe for the rest of his life; as long as he lived, there was peace between the tribes.
In the “peace child,” Don had found a centuries-old analogy to communicate Jesus the Sawi.
What I admire about Don: In a truly pagan culture, he looked for their longing–the desire for peace–as a way to draw a dotted line to Jesus.
“God looks like this”
Paul, too, openly quotes secular poetry and myths in Athens, hijacking them for the sake of uncovering the truth the intellectual Athenians crave.
Like Don Richardson, Paul searched for God’s carefully inlaid redemptive elements into every culture throughout history, throughout the world.
Seeing God’s truth from unending sources changes everything. We hear this concept in verses like, “To the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15) and “Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light” (Matthew 6:22).
We’re suddenly, gratefully aware of God working everywhere. Creating cultural bridges to him everywhere.
And it turns a lot more “secular” into…sacred.
CULTURAL BRIDGES: Turning “Us vs. Them” into “This is All of Us”
My husband has helped turn me into a finder of cultural-bridges.
Unlike me, who grew up in an era the Church engaged in boycotts and condemned rock music, he grew up largely outside the Church.
Rather than drawing lines of black and white in cultural issues, you could say he sees things a little more pixilated: intricate combinations of good and evil, truth and untruth.
In movies, he watches good triumph in its battle between evil. (Can you think of some redemptive, Jesus-looks-a-bit-like-this elements in the latest Marvel movie?)
In music, he hears the soul-level questions–perhaps even conveyed with more honesty than in some “Christian” music. (What makes music or art Christian? That’s a topic for another day.) When Imagine Dragons sings “that’s where my demons hide,” I can now hear people grappling with the evil within.
In people I would have formerly dubbed as political or cultural adversaries, I can now locate some of their longings and hopes. I’m getting rid of my us/them attitudes, realizing we share a lot of the same desires.
My husband and God have helped me truly see people, not just how they’re so wrong.
It’s helped me engage out of faith and compassion, locating cultural bridges, rather than fear and righteous indignation. And that’s in both my passport nation and in Uganda.
Even in Uganda’s child sacrifice and witchcraft, I see a culture that senses and engages the supernatural, that recognizes its powerlessness in the face of evil.
I’m missing Something
When I lump cultural matters into black and white—searching to eliminate some of that ambiguity–I don’t just miss the bridge.
I miss some of God’s truth that human culture illuminates poignantly.
It takes “discernment” to a whole new level when you can’t put a whole cultural activity or group, or even a whole person, into a category.
Instead, as Augustine said, All truth is God’s truth. That means whatever the culture uncovers of God’s truth still belongs to God (including books, movies, music, and TV).
And we can celebrate it as such.
PLUNDERING THE EGYPTIANS? (HUH?)
A friend of mine used to refer to “plundering the Egyptians”—a concept I now see everywhere.
Before the exodus of the Israelite slaves from Egypt, God commands every woman to
ask of her neighbor…for silver and gold jewelry, and for clothing. You shall put them on your sons and on your daughters. So you shall plunder the Egyptians. (Exodus 3:22)
Essentially, the Israelites sought riches from those who enslaved them, and put them to use for God and His people.
For a friend of mine who knew someone considering an abortion, this meant quoting some Jay-Z lyrics. For a teenager I know, it’s listening to a Taylor Swift release and engaging around the topic of mental illness.
And teaching Muslims in Africa, it meant understanding their ritual washings for sins like touching pork. I could empathize with their longing to be clean, rather than coming from my Western perspective, which emphasizes guilt or innocence.
Sometimes when disagreeing with culture, we’re hearing how their message is said–and missing the heart.
If I were interacting with my teenagers, they might think, You just. Don’t. Get it.
Yes. But No. But Yes
Tim Keller, in his highly-recommended Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, speaks of “saying of…cultural hopes, ‘Yes, but no, but yes.’”
My paraphrase of his explanation:
Yes, this “hole” that you feel, this question you’re asking, is legitimate.
No, you’re not looking in the right place.
But God is your ultimate yes in this. He’s got what you’re famished for.
With this perspective, I’m ushered in as a listener, a learner to love this culture well. Keller continues,
“Contextualization”…means to resonate with yet defy the culture around you. It means to antagonize a society’s idols while showing respect for its people and many of its hopes and aspirations. It means expressing the gospel in a way that is not only comprehensible but also convincing….
There are sore spots, as it were, where people who don’t believe in Christianity or God feel pinched, like feet in a pair of shoes that are too small, by their view of the world. These are the places where what they profess and say they believe about the world does not fit their intuitions or experiences. [We] must know those sore spots and press on them with questions, offers, illustrations, and examples that make the tension they feel more acute and the incongruities more troubling.*
Looking down on a lost culture misses an opportunity to engage real people needing Jesus–to discover and cross cultural bridges.
But it also might just miss ways we might grow, learn, and thank God for redemptive elements He liberally scatters for people to find Him.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, and speaker, as well as the editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Janel also frequently writes and speaks to global women through Thrive Ministry.
Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House) released October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.
A version of this post initially appeared on the author’s blog, and is used with permission.
Like this post? You might like
Crossing Cultures: Adding More Pieces to Your God-Puzzle
Just Different? Right, Wrong, and Flexibility in Crossing Cultures