[Note: This was originally intended to be a single post, but due to length I separated it into two parts. This is part 1 of the post.]
I blog to share ideas through the written word that I believe could challenge or encourage people. Challenge them to reflect on how they could follow Jesus more faithfully, or encourage them to continue in their walk. The written word is powerful, but it is also easily misunderstood. Mostly because a large portion of communication happens through vocal inflection and body language. Both elements are absent in the written text. The written word, especially on social media platforms, is also easy to attack because the written word is not embodied by a person. People write comments on the internet that they would likely never say to a person face to face.
All that to say, I have written things, posted things, shared things, and commented on things that were likely misunderstood. I have also been guilty of misunderstanding others. Some of what I have shared that has been controversial has been related to some “hot button” issues of our time. I want to take some time to give some background to my perspectives.
By offering background I am simply attempting, through the written word, to personalize the ideas I hold. The background may not convince anyone else to think how I thing, and it doesn’t have to. However, I hope the background to my particular positions might offer some perspective.
First, let’s talk about cultural awareness and the danger of a single story.
Part of the problem with all of the dissension happening in our nation right now is a lack of cultural awareness. All of us make sense of the world by interpreting our experiences and interactions. The lens through which we see the world is greatly shaped by our cultural upbringing. “We’re socialized into our respective cultures first and foremost through the family setting. This socialization is further reinforced through school, the media, church, and eventually through our professional networks and environments.” Our cultural perspectives influence everything from dialect to brand preferences. It is amazing how opinionated people can be about Ford versus Chevy.
People’s views on a number of things are not really based on concrete, factual evidence. I think Wendy’s is better than McDonald’s. Someone else may think McDonald’s is better than Wendy’s. Is this right, wrong, or just different? Yet, we can get extremely passionate about brands, sports teams, and political views. Some of the things we are passionate about are really not right or wrong issues. Yet we fight as if they are life and death issues. I remember playing sports in high school. Grown adults would scream and yell at other adolescent teens on the other team emphatically declaring their inferiority. Why? Was it because they actually knew the character of the other kid? No. It was simply because they were from the rival school. We have a tendency to believe our way of seeing things is the way, and we use all sorts of combative tactics to express the superiority of our view.
David Livermore explains in his book Cultural Intelligence how our tendency to see things a certain way fails to take into account the possibility that the way other people do things could just be different. He talks about how we tend to categorize life according to narrow or wide categories:
“Narrow categorizers focus on differences…Narrow categorizers watch the behavior of people from different cultures and categorize them based on what those actions would mean in one’s own cultural context. A narrow categorizer has subconscious lists that include words that should be used by educated people, clothes that shouldn’t appear on Christians, and norms for how married couples should relate…Those with narrow category width are much quicker to characterize things as right versus wrong.”
In other words, narrow categorizers have a tendency to view things that are different as if they are wrong. This is problematic considering the diversity of cultures present in our world. If we are not careful, we can make the mistake of categorizing the way other cultures do things as being wrong. When, as Christians, we interpret “wrong” as also sinful we can find ourselves condemning entire groups of people for things God hasn’t condemned. This happened when Western missionaries evangelized the Native Americans. Christianizing the Natives was viewed as synonymous with Westernizing and civilizing them. Elements of their cultural identity were condemned that could have been redeemed.
The other issue relates to this particular quote, “Narrow categorizers watch the behavior of people from different cultures and categorize them based on what those actions would mean in one’s own cultural context.” If we are not careful we can do this when we approach the Bible. We can forget that the Bible was written to a different people group, during a different time of history, in a different cultural context, in a different language, and in a different geographical location. We need to be careful to not assume too quickly that how we would interpret Paul is how the Greek Corinthians would have interpreted Paul. What something meant then in that culture may not be what it means now in our culture. This is not to say everything in the Scriptures is relative. Far from the truth! It is to say we need to humbly approach the biblical text and not hastily and universally apply our interpretations of the text.
For a class I had to watch several TED talks. If you haven’t watched any TED talks, I highly recommend that you do. One of the most impactful TED talks I had to view was by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on “The danger of a single story.” The premise is that we often reduce people to the limited details we know about their story. We paint them with a single story.
Here is an excerpt from the video transcript:
“I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family. My father was a professor. My mother was an administrator. And so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic help, who would often come from nearby rural villages. So, the year I turned eight, we got a new house boy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor…. Then one Saturday, we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them. Years later, I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. …What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”
Have you every painted someone with a single story?
When I was a kid I somehow came to believe that smoking tobacco was bad and not something “good” Christians should do. I still think smoking is not ideal, wise, or healthy. However, I had a tendency of assuming people who smoked not only were not Christians, but could not be Christians. I had a single story for smokers and I was a narrow categorizer. Sometimes how we paint people of a different race, religion, or political view reduces them to a single story. Sometimes how we view complex issues like racism, poverty, and gun violence reduces the issues and the people behind the issues to a single story.
I have the belief that this is something we are prone to do. One of the things that breaks the boundaries of our single stories is relationship. I had all sorts of negative assumptions about homeless people until I actually talked with someone at a homeless shelter. Face to face interaction with people who are created in the image of God has a way of changing our hearts. It also has a way of adding dimension to our single stories.
 David Livermore, Cultural Intelligence (p. 87)
 David Livermore, Cultural Intelligence (p. 179)
 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The danger of a single story. TEDGlobal. July 2009. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story