The tree stretches up to the sky and displays its fruit and leaves for all to see. The tree’s branches trace a line for the observer to the source of what it produces. But the tree only reveals as far as its trunk. In order to look deeper — the roots underground — one needs to dig and study. Only then does one see the source of what was easily visible but not fully understood.
Last week, I (temporarily) traded in the heat and humidity of the Sahel for the cool, damp air of the West African mountains.
I spent a week in Togo for an SIL conference on “The Gospel and Culture.” The staff and attendees represented eight West African countries and all work in the area of Scripture Engagement, facilitating the use and understanding of the Bible in minority languages. The group included a multiplicity of nationalities, denominations, and backgrounds. Out of 35 participants, I was one of only five non-Africans, one of only three Americans. I’ve never been so thrilled to be outnumbered.
My “contribution” was largely listening. I spent the week learning from West African Christians studying their own cultures. They were absolutely inspiring. Committed to Jesus and proud of their cultures, they want to see their communities redeemed and transformed in authentic ways. The sessions spilled over into coffee breaks and meal times as we shared experiences. The discussions were far from theoretic — we were talking about the practices and beliefs that compose their everyday lives. The specific theme guiding the week’s work was marriage — its celebration, the beliefs underlying it, its place in church life, its place in the Bible, its outworking in the community. Because marriage affects families and communities so profoundly, we were discussing the very fabric of the West African cultures represented.
What does a tree have to do with “The Gospel and Culture”? The image is used as part of a Scripture Engagement method to understand how traditional practices relate to the Bible and vice versa. In any culture, the fruit and leaves will be easy to see — these are the visible practices. For the curious observer, the branches also become visible as questions are posed about what else goes on surrounding the practice. But at a certain point, the cultural observer reaches the ground, where the answers disappear from sight. He or she may hear, “I don’t know why; we’ve just always done it.” That’s when the observer starts to dig for the set of beliefs and forces of motivation that drive the visible practice.
The observer may be an insider or an outsider. A combination of the two perspectives is ideal. Each brings an important point of view in applying biblical truth. We need outsiders to point out our blind spots, and we need insiders whose experience guides our study.
That’s why the conference was so rich. As outsiders and insiders we worked and learned together. I was grateful for the opportunity to watch various outsiders in action, modeling how to listen, ask questions, and facilitate a mutually deepened understanding. The foreigner who enters a culture anthropologically – seeking to understand the Other, from within the culture itself (to the extent that it’s possible for an outsider) – is an agent for insight and possibly for change. Repeatedly I thought, “Lord, could you use me in that way?”
I felt privileged to hear from the insiders of several West African cultures, and to learn how Christians work through and live out their faith in those contexts. Does God require of Beliyan Christians to observe wedding celebrations within the church community, or just between families as is traditional? How can the Jola Kassa church help young couples who are ready to marry but who can’t afford the cost of a ceremony, considered necessary in their culture? How does a man “leave his father and mother and be united to his wife” in various West African cultures where it is imperative for the man to stay in his parents’ compound and for the woman to join him there when they marry? The insiders identified practices which they see as either neutral, incompatible with God’s will, or affirming of God’s truth.
Inevitably, though, I hit moments of full-on culture shock. There was the recurring emphasis on virginity in the various dowry-giving rituals — proof of the woman’s virginity is sought and enormous shame (without inquiry into the cause) accompanies the failure to prove it. I felt a twinge of anger. I was bothered to hear so much advice given to the bride and teaching on submission to her husband, with seemingly little given to the groom and teaching on loving his wife. And a lively, drawn-out study of divorce and remarriage led to a surprising discovery — remarriage is more or less categorically opposed by many West African church leaders. Even in cases of abuse and abandonment, participants (both pastors and lay people) expressed great reluctance in supporting the victim’s divorce and remarriage. “How could that be just?” I thought to myself. In these moments of culture shock, I was faced with the question, “Am I bothered because the way of Jesus is somehow being violated, or simply because of my own cultural norms?” I had ample practice at not judging a culture’s visible fruit until I’ve learned the underlying root system.
It was with the topic of remarriage that we practiced using the tree model to see below the surface. Through panel interviews, small group discussions on Bible passages, and much listening, we identified the following fears that West African Christians have of participating in separating a husband and wife:
- of offending spouses and their family (who might attack the former spouse and who would blame the pastor if they ever came back and repented, only to find the spouse remarried)
- of church hierarchy (preferring to defer to higher authorities)
- of damaging the church’s honor (by allowing the original marriage vows taken before God to be broken)
- of going against Scriptures (since the passages aren’t always clear)
- of God and His judgment (for “separating what God has joined together”)
Many also raised the question of how the church would care for an abandoned spouse and the affected children. But at the mid-point of the conference, it seemed that these matters were lost in the quest to find the elusive black-and-white principles in Scripture regarding divorce and remarriage.
By the end of the week, though, a change was taking place in my colleagues and myself. No conclusions were reached on any topic (that wasn’t the point, after all). But one pastor stood up and asked the group if we weren’t doing exactly what the Pharisees of Jesus’ day did with the law. “Have we forgotten mercy and compassion in all this?” I heard from several that they were planning to introduce for discussion the various topics once they returned to their communities. As one pastor said, “We never learned about these things in seminary.” Some colleagues had ideas for changing the way marriage is viewed and practiced, and others left with new realization that their culture’s view of marriage actually affirms biblical truth. All of us were leaving with gained insight and tools.
The change in myself continues as I consider the root system I got a glimpse of in Togo, a root system not my own but that I can appreciate. My West African brothers and sisters view marriage as built on a bond reaching far beyond vows and physical union. At marriage, they believe that something happens to a couple, something that not even infidelity or the breaking of the wedding contract or even divorce can change. They see a sort of mystical bond there that God Himself has participated in forging, and that is therefore holy. From their understanding, to participate in separating this bond in the slightest way is most dangerous.
Does my home culture provide me with the same weighty, profound view of marriage?
I’m still processing and conducting my own informal interviews. One thing is for sure, I read in a new light the passages calling Jesus the church’s husband. Even the best among us humans give a poor picture in any of our relationships, in any of our cultures of Christ’s faithfulness to us. He paid more than any dowry in order to love us. He stays committed to us despite our many shortcomings, and He longs for the day when He will take us home with Him.
“Our joy in Him may be a fluctuating thing: His joy in us knows no change.” -Hudson Taylor