Sunday, February 26, 2006


In my lectures in anthropology I talk about the curse of ethnocentrism. To be ethoncentristic is to have an attitude that one’s own culture is superior to others. It was a word developed around the Victorian age of colonialism, whereas cultures were classified as civilized or primitive by the criterion of how people lived, Europe being the highest standard of civilization.

Ethnocentrism manifest’s itself in subtle ways by making snide and unkind remarks about other people, e.g. they are stupid, lazy or dirty. A friend in Kenya use to say, when frustrated with the way things worked (or didn’t), “TIK” (This Is Kenya). In India one American family says, when they are stressed out, “We’re having an Indian culture day today.” One guy I know tells storeowners if they want his business they should meet his expectations as an American! It was in 1958 that the book The Ugly American was published…it’s a book about ethnocentrism and this pejorative term is still used today when American arrogance is displayed.

Ethnocentrism is not just a Western characteristic; it’s true of all cultures. "Skin tax" is common in developing countries where there are always two prices for every commodity, one for locals and one for foreigners. A popular book presently in India entitled One Night At A Call Center, is full of wisecracks about ignorant Americans. The kids working at the call center have come up with an IQ formula they call the 10 = 35 (the mentality of a 10 year old Indian equals the IQ of a 35 year old American). There is even a pastor of a church my wife attends for a women’s Bible study class who chides the Indian women by asking them, “Why do you want to be around these white skinned people?” Ethnocentrism is an insidious disease that affects all people in every culture.

Certainly people should be proud of their cultural heritage. I get weary listening to Americans apologize for their country; our policies, wealth, inequalities, etc. If something goes wrong in the world we can always blame the United States. Though my culture (and your culture), indeed have flaws, there is nothing inherently wrong with being proud of who you are and where you are from. We cross the line into ethnocentrism, however, when we begin to act out a spirit of superiority and voice that attitude with rude remarks about others.

I was reminded of this issue this past week. I purchased some airline tickets that were issued in the states. A friend said his father-in-law would bring the tickets for me when they come for a visit next month. I got a message from him Friday saying, “Sorry but they have lost the tickets.” I now have to go through the process of time and money in getting the tickets reissued. Hey, I understand, mistakes happen, we are all fallible. But I wondered, if someone in India had made this blunder, would we say it was just a mistake, or would we talk about the irresponsibility of the people in this culture? To err is human, unless you are of a different ethnicity and then you’re just an idiot.

I must admit I’m fighting ethnocentrism right now. As I think of the hours I’m going to have to put into correcting the goof-up of someone else, I know I should be charitable and say, “It could happen to anyone, everyone makes mistakes.” But in my black heart what I’m feeling is “the incompetent don’t live in Kenya or India, but in Texas.”

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Friends and Enemies

Talking with a colleague several years ago, he mentioned a person whom I had business with. In the course of the conversation he let it be known that he did not have a good relationship with this mutual acquaintance. When I told him that, not only did I know this person, he was a friend of mine and wondered if that was a problem with us working together? He said to me, “Lewis, you don’t have to adopt my enemies to be my friend.”

I thought about that in my early morning walk today in Chennai. I have a friend here I have been working with for over ten years. He’s a visionary, charismatic and opinionated. He is also obstinate, a bit preachy and I certainly don’t agree with some of his projects. I have known people who have partnered with my friend who decided that he was either dishonest or a dictatorial tyrant and therefore severed their relationship with him. Many of those people wonder why I continue my relationship with such a man. The reasons are basic.

First, people who develop relationships based on competing agenda’s are bound to clash. When everyone wants to take the credit for how many souls are saved, how many churches are planted, how many orphans are supported, someone is going to be unhappy on how the money is or should be spent. My friend and I do not have competing agenda’s. His goals and mine are the same, i.e. training people how to take the message of Christ cross-culturally. Neither he nor I use each other for our own end. Because his goals and mine are the same we are not in competition.

Second, most people who work my friend do not understand culture. Indian’s do not, for the most part, operate in an egalitarian fashion. Family businesses function with a very strong sense of hierarchy. Roles are well defined and few people get a vote on how the organization is run. I don’t make the rules; I just know how the rules are created which most people from the outside fail to understand. If someone wants to work with people in this culture they must understand that the person at the top is in control and to try and make them “accountable” (as they define accountability) is a waste of time. (Hierarchy is usually the result of a family run business. For established business and schools that is not run by the founder or his sons, the structure is more bureaucratic. There are egalitarian companies in India, but they are the minority).

Lastly, the reason I continue to work with my friend is that I do not desire to adopt someone else’s enemies for their approval. In every relationship it is a matter of give-and-take. Certainly that is true in marriage, so is it with all friendships. I know the parameters in which I can work with my friend. I work with him; I do not work for him. When I am on his turf I operate by his rules. When I disagree with him, which is often, we discuss it. We have built a mutual respect for each other in spite of our differences in opinion or personality.

As I continued my walk I thought about my younger brother who has made a mess of his family because he insists that one must adopt his enemies to be his friend. Others in the family have embraced that same philosophy making it impossible for reconciliation. I thought about church members who, not only left a church over a disagreement, have broken relationships with those of their former church because they are unwilling to support their unhappy position. I thought about people in my life that I no longer have a relationship with because I refuse to adopt their enemies. Life is too short. I may not like your friends, but you don’t have to adopt my enemies to be a friend of mine.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Conflict and Cultures

I am presently reading The Argumentative Indian, by Amartya Sen. He begins,

“Prolixity is not alien to us in India. We are able to talk at some length. Krishna Menon (when he was leading the Indian delegation) holds the longest speech ever delivered in the United Nations (nine hours non-stop), established half a century ago and, has not been equaled by anyone from any where. We do like to speak.”

I thought about Sen’s book while in the bank the other day. Sure, one gets use to the talking, arguing, bartering in the bazaar, but the bank? I was amused as I listened to the complaints by customers and the defense by the employees. Then I thought about my own culture and how that, when it comes to money, or frustrated with poor service, we can get more than a bit testy as well. I guess it’s true of all cultures. Or is it?

Cultures are usually put into one of two categories, conflict or shame. Shame cultures are often thought to be primarily among peoples of the Far East -- China, Japan, Thailand, etc. It’s not that they don’t argue, they can and they do. However, especially as it relates to interpersonal relationships, they are less confrontational. The best way to handle conflict in those cultures is through third party mediation.

Southeast Asian countries of India, Pakistan, and the Middle East are conflict cultures. One does not need a reason to argue in these societies; even the daily buying of bread is enough for debate. Latin American’s are not passive in their interactions so they, too, would be in the conflict group, but not as much as in Southeast Asia.

In some parts of the Western Europe, tolerance often means no opinion, but one would still not classify them as a shame culture -- perhaps a milk toast combination depending on the situation. American’s can be in-your-face and they lend more toward conflict, though not as severe as the Middle East. I am certain the kids working in the call centers of Mumbai would disagree with my accommodating assessment, but dealing with people who get unsolicited telemarketing calls is not a true gauge of society.

As one looks at confrontation and culture it’s easy to see the transference of religious belief and behavior. (Is religion born out of culture, or is cultural behavior shaped by religion?) The cultures of Buddhism and Shintoism hold humility as a value. While in Korea recently I observed that even among Christian’s, the Shinto approach to life is adopted by everyone in society. Confrontation is dealt with behind the scenes so that one does not lose face.

Evangelical North Americans are individualistic and opinionated and therefore prone more toward confrontation “The Bible says it, I believe it and that settles it,” is not an argument but merely a confrontational slogan. Christians whose motto is “live and let live,” hold a more passive liberal theology and are as useless as the turn-or-burn fundamentalists in communicating the message of Christ to non-belivers.

Muslims of course are in constant conflict. It’s not just a derogatory cartoon that will send them into the streets to riot; they kill their own as a matter of course on issues they find objectionable. Today’s enemy are the infidels, tomorrow it will be the Shiite that lives on the other side of town. “Have a nice day” isn’t a part of their worldview.

The behavior of Hindu’s runs from soup to nuts as it relates to their faith. They either will vehemently argue or arrogantly dismiss those who do not share their beliefs, but they are never neutral.

No matter where you live, the argumentative Indian is in us all. How one manifests that disagreement depends on your culture. In Rome they will ask for a bowl of water as a sign that they will not be involved in such matters, while in Jerusalem they have no problem defending God’s honor by nailing you to a cross. .

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Essentializing Experience

New words and phrases are always helpful. Most of us grapple with communicating thought and wish we had better way of saying things. Finding new words or phrases is like finding a precious gem, or perhaps, less dramatic, a morsel of savory meat at the bottom of a bowl of soup.

While attending a missiological consultation a few weeks back, a woman asked the speaker at the conclusion of his presentation how the subject matter related to women (it didn’t make any difference what the subject was, the same woman asked the same question to everyone who spoke). In the course of his response he acknowledged that, being a man, he certainly couldn’t address the subject as it relates to her experience.

“However,” he continued, “I reject the idea that my thoughts are not valid just because I view this situation differently. Essentializing experiences is, on the whole, not helpful.”

Essentializing experience. Great phrase. Don’t know if it’s a word (as my spellchecker can’t find it), but a great thought nevertheless. What does it mean?

When a person makes his or her experience THE experience for everyone to emulate they are essentializing. Essentializing experience is the kissing-cousin of reductionism, i.e. everything can be reduced to a biological, psychological, gender-specific or theological explanation. All religions practice both essentialism and reductionism. I can either prove it through the holy writings or I believe it because I have had an experience.

As a follower of Jesus Christ I can give both a theological as well as an experiential argument for my faith. And, while my experience is important and helpful in dialogue, essentializing my faith neither proves anything nor should be the basis for argument. I may argue that I experienced peace and forgiveness the day I accepted Christ as my Savior and became a decided follower of Him, but my experience does not mean that others must have the same feeling for their faith to be legitimate.

It’s the essentializing of experience that has caused much grief in the church. I’m quite content, though often skeptical, to know that others have experienced healing, talked with Jesus face-to-face, spoke in an unknown tongue or sense a warm feeling of His presence when they pray. However, when others insist that everyone must have that same feeling to be truly born-again, filled with the Spirit or be sanctified, the experience becomes a barrier and a point of contention for those who have not been so blessed with that same experience. Must one shed tears of remorse to be a true repentant? Must one take baptism immediately after embracing Christ to show they are true believer? Personal experience should not be taught as a universal principle.

Is experience therefore unimportant? Of course it’s important, to the believer, and can be used in the course of discussion, but its apologetic value is limited. The Apostle Paul talked about his experience on the road to Damascus (the Lord appearing and speaking to him – Acts 9:1-9), but Paul does not teach that a person must hear from heaven to be a follower and does not suggest that every missionary call must include a blinding light. When Paul recounted his Damascus road experience, non-believers merely dismissed him as being mad.

Space doesn’t allow for the discussion that experience itself is, not only a bad position for argument, it can also be dangerous. False doctrine is born more often through a combination of poor hermeneutics coupled with essentializing experience.

Essentializing experience
. Great phrase. Embrace your experience, make sure that it has proper biblical support, but don’t make it an essential doctrine for others.

Monday, February 13, 2006


Most people have heard the story of the soldier who was brought before Alexander the Great to be judged for misconduct.

“What is your name?” the Emperor asked.

Timidly the solder replied, “Alexander, sir.”

Outraged the great general roared, “Either change your ways or change your name.”

Names are a fascinating study. In America, where a name is more likely a reflection of the time than meaning, the days of Fred and Frank of the ‘50’s is now given way to Justin and Jamie of today. We might be grateful for the change as who would want to be stuck with names of the ‘20’s such as Ola (which is my mom’s name) or Wathena or Lila Venus.

In India I am often asked what’s “my good name.” I still don’t know if they want my given or surname, but since they are confused with both Richard and Lewis it doesn’t make much difference what I give them.

In Kenya you can usually get a clue of the tribe of a person by their last name. If it has a strong “gha” or “ka” sound like, “Gichuki” or “Kariuki,” they are usually Kikuyu; names that begin with “M” are Luya’s, such as Mgoya. For the Luo tribe almost all names begin with “O” such as Odinga. I had Luo guy working for me by the name of Ochieng. Whenever I got a letter from him the envelope was addressed to a Mr. Lichard Oruis.

Indians love “pet” names. There are a lot of women called Pinky, a few Bubbles and one Punjabi guy is called Dimples. My advice is if he goes to the states he not take that name with him. Names carry meaning in India as they often reveal status or caste. In the south, where the majority of the Christians live, there are a lot of people with the surname Thomas, Matthews and Samuels. Occasionally I have even met a few David Livingston’s and Charles Spurgeon’s.

While I was in Korea last month I was intrigued with those who had taken on Western names. There are a lot of Kim’s and Cho’s, but their first names are real tongue twisters. When I met my translator she told me her name was Becky.

“Really,” I said. How did you get that name?

She told me her friend gave it to her. I asked others who had taken on Western names how they got theirs. One guy told me that an American friend, who couldn’t pronounce his given first name, said, “You look like a ‘Joe’ to me, and so that’s what I’ll call you.” Now, when he meets an American he just tells them his name is Joe.

I met another Korean by the name of Brian. He said a friend gave him the name and he liked it. When I asked how his wife came to be called Brenda he told me, “My favorite singer growing up was Brenda Lee. I gave her the name Brenda because I loved Brenda Lee.” To me, that’s dangerous. I’m not sure my wife would like it if I called her Raquel (and I will let you guess who I’m thinking about).

In parts of Ethiopia a child is given two names. One that is revealed and one that is secret. The secret name is only revealed when the person is old enough to protect himself.

Some say that we will have a new name when we get to heaven (Rev. 2:17), though I’m not sure of that interpretation. Christ is given a name that only he himself knows (Rev. 19:12). I do think we need to think a bit more about the name Christian, which means “little Christ,” or “follower of Christ.” Like Alexander told the soldier, perhaps sometimes we need to either change our behavior or change our name.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Food and Globalization

“Let me see,” I said to myself as I looked at the menu board in front of me, “what am I hungry for?” There was an assortment of platters: Aloo (potato) Tikki, Biyriani (rice) Combo and the ever popular Pratha (flat bread) N Curry. Since I had my fill of Indian food for the week, I opted for the local made chicken burger.

As I stood in line at the noisy food court in Hyderabad, I observed my social context. Those gathered on the top floor of the mall were young, mostly under 30 years of age and middle class. The price, as well as the quality, of goods sold at the mall is much greater than the street market or bazaar. The music blasted a few decimals short of a jet engine and the kids looked like any other group of kids at any food court. That’s when it struck me…globalization!

Globalization does mean the blending of customs, language, dress and music. Like MTV, which is Rock no matter where you are, though sung in Lao or Latvian, food courts are a global/local phenomena. The new term for today’s trend is “glocal.” Whether the favorite dish is hot dogs (with only mayonnaise) in Santiago, or red chimchi and squid in Seoul, or the fajita wraps in Dallas, fast food at shopping malls is now a part of the international scene.

Those who resist globalization point to food courts as a prime example of the deterioration of culture. Stuart Miller writes in UNDERSTANDING EUROPEANS:

“With some exceptions, Americans are not very interested in the things they eat or in eating itself...we tend to be swallowers rather than tasters. In Milan, the most modern of Italian cities, the business lunch is still virtually unknown. Instead, they have their attention on the moment and they dedicate it to the food and the ceremony of eating. At the table, the food is discussed and food of other meals is remembered and compared with what one is eating now. Often, half the meal is taken up with talking about the food one is eating, the food one ate, the food one will eat, even how food is grown.”

Most people, especially in this hectic fast pace lifestyle of today’s world, treat food more as feed, not something to be savored. However, even in food courts, it’s not what we eat that is the issue but the social context of our dining experience. Anthropologist Mary Douglas states, “Food is a system of social communication...Food may nourish us, but we do not eat in order just to be nourished. Most people do not usually eat alone at irregular times and without the paraphernalia of seated eating. Nor do we eat what is best for us. Food events are like little rituals, [and] like rituals they involve communication.”

My epiphany in Hyderabad was that fast food is today’s version of the “raw,” of ancient man. Raw (or fast) food is for the informal, whereas cooked food is for meaningful communication. Okay, perhaps the food court is a pre-dating ritual for teenagers and therefore important for the socialization of raging hormones. In today’s glocal world food courts symbolize, what Thomas Friedman (THE WORLD IS FLAT) calls, the flattening of the earth.

My thoughts are interrupted as the kid with the funny hat behind the counter says to me in broken English, “Sir, would you like fries with that burger?” No wonder I like this place, it’s just like home.