Don’t Ask Unless You Don’t Mean It: Food Manners 101

“Do you want to eat ?”

The taxi driver held up the remaining 5 or six bites of his sandwich in his right hand as he gripped the steering wheel with his left.

“No, it’s okay,” I replied as I settled into the front seat. Just a moment later, the driver pulled over and two more passengers climbed in to the back seat. He repeated the question for them, now with just a couple bites remaining at the end of the baguette. “No, go ahead,” they responded in unison, and the driver finished off the remaining bites.

As I glanced sideways at the little morsel of sandwich in his hand, part of me thought,  “Really? Who would want to eat after him like that ? That’s kind of weird.” But then I thought back to an encounter in my neighborhood a couple of weeks earlier.

I had met a group of students on our street, and I spent the middle of the day with them. At one point, I went into my house to have lunch, telling them it was time to go eat lunch with my family. When I came back out, one of the students said to me,

“You know that was really rude.“

“What was?” I asked.

“Well, you just left and said, ‘I’m going to eat,’ and you didn’t ask us if we wanted to eat. You’re supposed to say, ‘Do you guys want to eat? ‘ and then we’ll say, ‘No, you go ahead,’ and then you can go eat your lunch.”

This made more sense when another friend informed us later that if you really want to give somebody something to eat, you don’t ask them if they want it. If you ask that question, they’ll think that you’re just asking to be polite. If you really want them to take it, you just bring it to them, and you can say  “Eat this” or “Take some”. This helped me understand why, when a group of guys came to visit our house, they all refused the drinks I offered them, until I just handed them out a little later.

In some ways, this is not all that different from Western culture: we’re generally told not to “eat in front of” someone who is visiting our house. It seems that here in West Africa, the idea extends a bit further – to customers of your business, or to people you are talking to on the street who, in my American mind, would obviously be eating with their families while I ate with mine.

The differences in food manners are more obvious when you share a meal with others here. A couple of days ago I went to a neighbor’s wedding, where I ate lunch. I was not sitting at a table with my wife and kids, as I would have been in the U.S.: the men sat in groups and the women sat in groups, and the kids not big enough to join one of these groups were with the ladies. They brought out big dishes of food out and set them on the ground, one in the middle of each group of five or six guys. Then everyone reached down from their chairs, stuck their hands (which, thankfully, had just been washed) into the rice and meat and started scooping it into their mouths. I’m pretty sure I won the prize for having the most rice on the ground in front of my chair, since I am used to eating it with utensils.


If you really want people to give you a dirty look here, just stick your left hand into the dish. The left is considered the dirty hand, that you would use for doing gross things, so you can keep your right hand clean for eating. This could pose a problem for my son, who at age one and a half seems to prefer his left hand. A Nigerien lady who ate with us recently saw him shoveling in food with his left hand and queried, “He eats with THAT hand?”

Hmmm. His American parents never really bother to correct him for eating with the left when he’s sitting at our table. Could be a long life of dirty looks ahead for you, kid. Sorry.


Vocation: the stuff of dreams…and everyday life

Following God’s call on my life has meant moving a family with young children around the world. This is not an easy task. And some days, living out my “vocation” – my calling based on abilities, divine guidance, circumstances and relationships – requires doing things that look pretty different from the dreams of success I entertain, but just as important.

Vocation is one side expertise

               Gifting, accomplishment, tasks done with ease   –

The stuff of introductions, applications, CV’s

Then there’s what needs to be done

 Humility, service: non-marketable skills

Calling (the other side) serves those we love

Boldness in the face of persecution

Steadfastness in the face of threats and suffering

Patience in the doctor’s waiting room

Discipline, every day, the quotidien

 Changing lives through passionate engagement  –

Winning hearts with persuasive words

Shaping young hearts’ attitudes through discipline

Changing diapers (engaged, but not passionate)

Dazzling a classroom with scholarly insights

Crafting words to express timeless truths                  –

Training leaders and making disciples

Potty training and making breakfast

 Craft supplies from the closet for a little girl’s project

  Dazzling a child with bedtime Bible stories

Navigating conflicts between culture and Christian belief

Learning my host culture’s way of relating    –

Wisely adapting my manners and approach to varying contexts

Seeking wisdom to help my family adapt to our new context

Learning (still) my wife’s way of relating    –

Navigating conflicts between my family’s needs and my desires

 Mobilizing others to go across cultures in mission

Sharing what God is doing in the global church

Trying to keep the kids quiet in church

Motivating myself to go talk to my neighbors

Google Maps and Presidential Escorts: How to find your way around in Niamey

Last week, a presidential staff person helped me find out where to pay my water bill in Niamey. No joke. Well, I should specify that he’s a former member of the presidential staff – he’s now retired. You may be starting to think that I have lots of connections here and could get someone important to help me. Nope. I just found him sitting in the shade by the side of the road. It’s part of what I’m learning about how you get information and find places in West Africa. And the process involves more than a Google search – which means it is often far more…interesting.

“Googling” is a regular part of life in North America. I can remember the days, in my teenage years in the U.S., when people talked about the various search engines available online. For a little while, everyone had their own favorite. Then the multitude of options gradually diminished until “google” became a verb in the English language. Now, with privacy concerns in mind, I hear discussions about all the steps necessary to not use Google’s services (and thus allow them to use your data), as it can be difficult for some tech-loving Americans to not use Google! For me, as for many other Westerners, it’s just the normal way to find information; including finding directions to any new place I want to go.

But finding my way around with Google maps (usually via the app on my Android phone) has proven more difficult here. The road maps can still be helpful, but the data about my surroundings – names of stores, restaurants, streets, etc. – that Google can provide in the western world is just not there in the maps of most African cities. In Tacoma, WA, a lack of internet visibility is the death knell of a restaurant or store. There, if the consumer can’t find it through an online search, they’ll never bother to find it.* In Niamey, lack of internet visibility is normal. If a place has been identified on Google Maps, it’s usually either a government building or a business owned by foreigners.

Of course, in the U.S., it’s not just when you’re looking to go out and spend money that you use Google maps or a GPS. How often do people give each other directions to their houses now? In most of my exchanges, you just get the address. Then you punch it into your preferred electronic mapping /navigation service and you’ve got the directions. In Tacoma, if you’re lucky, you can click on “street view” and see the friend you’re going to visit waving at the camera, as they happened to be outside when the funny-looking little car went by. In Niamey, if you’re lucky, the house you’re going to has a house number posted somewhere(and it takes another stroke of luck to find a clearly posted street sign! But can you find the house by it’s address on Google Maps? No way.

Around here, then, it’s all about directions using landmarks. If what you’re looking for is close to a recognizable landmark, you give directions starting from that landmark. And if it’s not, a person who knows the way has to take you there for the first time, (then you have to remember the way the next time). When a repairman or delivery person comes to your house for the first time, it’s best to go meet them on the main road and show them the way to your house. When we were still freshly arrived but didn’t have our car yet, I called a refrigerator repairman and asked him to come to our house. I felt pretty embarrassed when I proved incapable of describing to him how to get to our house. In the end, he called the friend who had referred him to us, who was able to give him better directions over the phone, while I stood at the corner watching for his moto to come by.

But back to my ride with the guy from the presidential palace: I’ve discovered that, when you know the general neighborhood of the place you’re looking for but not the exact location, there’s a different kind of “Google” information service that can serve very well. If you’ll pardon an acronym, I’d say that the GOOGLE of Niamey is Groups Of Old Guys Lounging Everywhere. It works like this: when you get fairly close to the place you’re looking for, you look around for the nearest group of guys sitting under a tree or in the shade of a building, and you ask them where to find it. Assuming one of them speaks one of your languages, they’ll tell you which direction to go. You travel a little ways that direction, then you stop and ask another group. If you’re close to the destination, they can give you more detail or just point at it.

That’s how it happened last week, when I was trying to find the local office where I could pay my water bill. I knew the general location, so when I got close, I stopped and asked a group of guys. They sent me down the street, to where another group of guys pointed down an alley. I arrived at the not-at-all-well-marked office for the water company to find that they were closed for lunch break. I had parked my car parked in front of the first group of old guys, so when I went to get back in, they asked if I had found the water company. “Yes, but it was closed. I’ll come back in the afternoon.” One of them, who spoke French very well and a little bit of English, told me I could go to the post office to pay the bill instead. Since I didn’t know where it was, he climbed into my car to ride with me and show me the way. As we chatted on the way to the post office (which was better marked the water company, but still not in an obvious location), he told me that he has just retired from a government post working for the president of Niger.

At the post office, they informed us they were not yet taking payments for that month’s water bills, and I should come back in a week. Google could not have told me that, unfortunately. And only G.O.O.G.L.E. would dispatch a presidential staffer to help the no-name white foreigner go pay his water bill. As I said, it’s a less efficient system, but it certainly is an interesting one.

* With certain exceptions, of course, where a subculture or cult following keeps a business alive without internet presence.

Hey, taxi man!

In the western world, I’ve always been happy to use public transportation, if possible. My vision of an ideal lifestyle is one where I don’t need to own a car – a place where I can walk, bike or take efficient and practical public transit to all the places I regularly need to go. In the small American cities I grew up and went to college in, the efficient public transit option did not exist. In the mid-sized city of Tacoma, WA which I now call home in the U.S., well, it was only slightly better (i.e., there’s more public transit, but it’s not very efficient or practical). When I spent 6 months living near Paris and studying in the city, now, that was great ! The train network, the metro, the buses, with something running at all hours of day and night. The greatest challenge was paying attention to the strikes and demonstrations that often interrupt the schedule, but the system moves a lot of people with remarkable efficiency.

Now for West Africa. Public transportation is a great need here in this capital city of over a million people. But the need is not met by taxpayer-funded infrastructure projects. Rather, it’s met by hundreds of small white taxi cabs (with some Toyota vans in the mix, too, for larger crowds). The taxis can function like a bus system in an American or European city, or in the same way as taxis do in the cities I’ve lived in before. That is to say, there are some designated spots in the city where lots of cabs organize based on which part of the city they’re headed to (like a bus stop), and each vehicle fills up with 4 passengers in each car who pay a low fare. Or you can go to any main road, flag down a taxi and tell the driver where you want to go (Like one would in New York, DC or Chicago). If he’s already headed somewhere else, he may tell you he’s not going to your destination. Or he may just drive away without saying anything, leaving you to deduce that he wasn’t planning on going to your destination. When you flag someone down, he’ll usually stop along the way to pick up other people, assuming their destinations are along the same route. You can also use taxis the way people do in smaller cities in the U.S. : you call and ask them to pick you up. If you know a taxi driver that you like, then you keep his phone number handy for those times when you need him to come get you from home and take you somewhere that’s not on a « standard » route. That, of course, is the most expensive option. But if I want to take our whole family of four somewhere, (or bring the five chairs I just bought back home with me, for that matter), well, it requires paying a little bit more.

Of course, humans are not the only live passengers in this transit system. I climbed into the back of one taxi last week and greeted the driver and the lady riding in the front passenger seat. The baby she held in her arms stared wide-eyed at me, the white skinned stranger. Distracted by the baby, I did not notice the other passenger in the vehicle, until I heard a bleat just behind me. Then I turned my head and saw the curled horns of a ram in the back of the cab. When we reached the first stop, the cab driver climbed out to lift the sheep out of the hatchback and untie his legs.


I remember seeing a news story about how the passengers on a commuter train in a Canadian city complained and were highly disturbed that a lady riding in their car was plucking a freshly slaughtered chicken during their train ride. I imagine that would not cause such an uproar here.

My very first taxi ride in Africa took much longer than normal for the distance traveled. I wasn’t going very far away, but I got to experience one of the perks of living in the capital city – waiting for the presidential motorcade to pass (groan!). Thus what should have been a 10-minute drive turned into an hour of waiting. The taxi driver was patient – even though I was his only passenger, he waited to get me to my destination. He wanted to earn a long-time customer who might pay the higher rate for pick-ups from home.

It turns out he speaks French (the official language, but not the most widely spoken) well and drives carefully. Neither of those two things can be taken for granted here. But then, come to think of it, that seems to be pretty consistent in general around the world (or at least a common complaint around the world) – taxi men who have a reputation as very aggressive drivers, but don’t always speak the official language very well. So I was glad to find an exception.

Soon our family will have a car to drive around : the paperwork for our car and our Nigerien drivers licenses is in process. I may not need to take many taxi rides after that. But, then, I may do it anyway, because it’s just plain interesting. Then again, driving around this city will certainly be interesting…just in a more stressful way, I imagine. Either mode of transportation promises many more stories to come.

Soon our family will have a car to drive around : the paperwork for our car and our Nigerien drivers licenses is in process. I may not need to take many taxi rides after that. But, then, I may do it anyway, because it’s just plain interesting. Then again, driving around this city will be plenty interesting…just in a more stressful way, I imagine. Either mode of transportation promises many more stories to come.

Taking out the trash: Easy, yet hard

One of the hardest things psychologically for me so far about life in urban West Africa has been taking out the garbage. I feel a little bit silly saying this, but it’s true.

If you’ve ever walked the streets of an African city, you are probably thinking What do you mean? People just throw their garbage in big piles by the street! That’s exactly what’s hard for me. Every few days, I have walked down to neighborhood garbage pile and tossed our household waste onto the heap. And every time I do it, I find myself glancing around nervously, just waiting for an ecologically concerned fellow citizen to give me a condescending glare, or for a policeman to show up and hand me a fine for littering. Coming from my home culture, it just does not feel right.

I have sorted my garbage with diligence all my life. As a child, because I knew that when we made a trip to the recycling center, I would get a few dollars in my pocket; As an adult, because I was passionate about caring for God’s creation. And as a city dweller on the west coast of the U.S. (and, later, in France) responsible waste handling was easy and efficient: you just drop things in the right container, then roll the container out to the curb on the appropriate day. The city takes care of the rest, recycling or composting as many materials as possible, then compacting and sealing the rest into a landfill, away from the space we live in.

Sure, it’s true that North Americans produce far more waste per capita than the rest of the world’s population. But two things that pretty much everyone in the U.S. has heard at some point in our lives are: “don’t litter” and “recycle.” So, when there’s no straightforward recycle option available (maybe I’ll eventually find the right person to give stuff to for it to be repurposed or recycled, but I haven’t yet), I’m left breaking the two basic rules of waste disposal at the same time, as I toss a bag full of garbage – some of it recyclable – onto a pile on the side of the road!

Of course, I’m talking about my experience and feelings right now. The truth is that there’s a lot of sorting and reuse going on that happens in a different way. For one thing, there are always animals digging through the garbage piles by the road. Anything edible thrown in those piles is bound to be found and eaten by the goats and cows foraging in the garbage pile. In some spots on the dirt roads in our neighborhood, people are tossing their garbage strategically in low places in the road to make for a smoother drive. And since everything is just sitting out in big piles by the street, who’s to say that the old adage about one man’s trash being another man’s treasure doesn’t result in more reusing than meets the naked eye?

It sure helps me feel better, though, when I know that what I’m throwing out is going directly to an appropriate place. I’ve found that all our food scraps are welcome just down the street, with the neighbors who do not mind giving their sheep and goats exclusive access to our food scraps (no rummaging required). Also, someone tipped me off that there are boys in our part of town with blue carts who can be enlisted to come pick up one’s garbage periodically. They will then sort out any containers that could be sold for reuse or recycling. Maybe soon I will have my materials collected and sorted. At least then, whatever gets thrown in the neighborhood trash heap will be thrown in by someone else’s hands, not mine. The net result may not be a lot better, but, well, at least it will feel better.

Cell phones in Africa: Trading monthly contracts for scratch-off cards

This is my first-ever post giving a snapshot of daily life in West Africa. I look forward to many more interesting moments to share.

The day I arrived in West Africa, a friend who picked us up from the airport bought credit for a temporary cell phone so that we would have a way to communicate until I got my smartphone set up for service. He knew that, for me to buy a new SIM card for the local network, I would have to show identification and register the card as part of anti-terrorism laws in the country. Now, in this part of Africa, there aren’t cell phone service plans – you buy a scratch-off card with a code, then you dial a special number and enter the code. The cards can be bought all over the place. But not everyone who sells the scratch-off cards can sell a SIM card and do the registration. My friend, thinking ahead on our behalf, asked the guy selling credit just down the road if he could register SIM cards, too. The vendor said yes.

So a couple of days later, I walked up to his shop with two phones (mine and my wife’s), ready to get connected. When I arrived, I was told he was gone to the mosque for prayer, and he’d be back soon. So I sat down on a short wooden bench in the shade of a tree and waited for a few minutes. When he returned, I learned two things : first, that he only spoke a few words of French, and so we needed to find a bystander to translate from French to Zarma ; second, that what he meant by « Yes,» he could do the registration was that he could walk me a couple of streets over to someone who could do it. So we made the short walk – to find that the agent in that office was not there at the moment, and was supposed to be back in an hour. So we started walking back to his shop. About halfway there, however, a boy came running up to tell us to come back, because the agent had returned early. So we trudged back to that store, and waited as the agent recorded the information from my passport onto the appropriate forms.

The next step was to walk back over to the first card-seller’s stand, where we could install the SIM cards in the phones and I could buy the credit needed to start making calls. This went fine for the first phone. But when we opened the second phone, we discovered that it took a min-SIM card (okay, I should have remembered that earlier, but…well, I didn’t). So the outsourcing and improvising resumed : The latest bystander-translator assured me that they could cut the card down to the right size, and it would be no problem. So another bystander took the card, jumped on his motorcycle, and rode off to find the neighborhood’s expert SIM-card cutter. I went back to the wooden bench under the tree. Sure enough, in a few minutes, the moto came buzzing back up the street with a smaller version of the SIM card, and when we put it in and powered up the phone – it worked !

Both phones were now on the mobile network. All that was left was to pay for the cards, get a few thousand CFA* worth of credit for each one, and start scratching off my codes. (Actually, that process, as simple as it appeared, required a bit of coaching from my friend later in the day.) After a minute of pointing and saying numbers in French, we figured out the appropriate payment and change. Before I left, the vendor had yet another bystander-translator tell me that when I needed to recharge my phone, I should come back to him to buy more credit. And really, after all that, he deserves my business.

*CFA = West African Francs; 595 CFA = $1

Is the “Performance Gap” a Parenting Gap?

  How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough

(A review and reaction: part 1)

In recent years, many have offered solutions for the failures of the American education system. While some solutions bear up to scrutiny better than others, there are certainly issues that require a multi-pronged approach. There could be positive results if, for example, funds were distributed more effectively, if teachers were compensated differently, if early learning programs were expanded, or if academic hours were extended. Systemic changes are certainly needed, and the debate will continue to rage about which changes would be most effective. Over the past few years, though, I’ve been working with other individuals who want to make a difference in the lives of students in their own communities, whether those systemic changes happen or not. Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character sheds some light on the many factors that make a difference in students’ success or failure.

On a personal note, my experience with seeking practical solutions for low-income students has included providing support to students outside of school hours. I have been involved with students as a mentor and tutor, but I am not a professionally trained teacher. The students with whom I have worked come from the low-income demographic that lies on the wrong side of the “performance gap.” As a rule, I have always looked for practical ways to instill motivation, perseverance, and a vision for the future into their lives. So the How Children Succeed caught my attention, and its contents did not disappoint.

The author goes on a wide-ranging journey to discover what elements are present in students in the U.S. from a variety of backgrounds who succeed – not just in financial terms, but in quality of life and contribution to society, as well. He takes us on a journey beginning with some of the worst-off schools in impoverished Chicago neighborhoods. He goes inside tough public middle schools in New York City, charter schools pioneering innovative approaches, and private and public schools serving wealthy students in the Riverdale neighborhood of New York City and in suburban California. As he interacts with extensive research, observes classrooms and programs, and interviews people across this broad spectrum, Tough zeroes in on intangible factors that help students to succeed, whether they are building on a strong educational foundation or compensating for a poor one.

The first section takes the combined findings of education and public health research on how early childhood experiences affect the course of individuals’ lives. Tough demonstrates, with statistics and stories, how an early sense of security from a strong bond with parents can provide a solid foundation for success in education, vocation, and physical health. On the other hand, trauma, neglect and insecurity early in life can dramatically undermine physical, mental and emotional health for the rest of one’s life, in ways that the best educational institutions and medical professionals cannot overcome with a business-as-usual approach. Tough, and the researchers he interviews, build a convincing argument that the best preventive action possible for our educational systems, medical systems and society in general is caring parental involvement in young children’s lives. In a culture where divorce and dysfunctional, fragmented families are prevalent, this analysis comes as bad news.

For Christians involved in political action and social change, however, I see the potential to bridge a gap between two camps that have been divided. Christian conservatives have long been involved in advocating for stronger families, and providing grassroots, church based training to strengthen Christian families. At the opposite pole, the Christian left has proudly advocated for government policies that help the poor. Both of these are valid Christian concerns. And if solid parenting offers the best hope for poor children to overcome generational poverty and live flourishing lives, then those who want to strengthen families in the name of Jesus and those who want to empower the poor in the name of Jesus could combine their passions, knowledge and expertise to work for the kingdom of God in a powerful and meaningful way. Of course, this would require a lot of challenging and “messy” relational work: getting involved in the lives of struggling families – wealthy or poor – requires great fortitude, and nearly as much patience as having civil dialogue with people on the other end of the political spectrum in America.

Make yourself at home…but not TOO much at home.

On my continuing quest to understand how Christianity relates to culture, I have been slowly digesting a seminal work in missiology by Andrew Walls, called The Missionary Movement in Christian History. Walls is insightful and his words are enriching in many places. I will quote and comment on one key section here.

“Throughout Christian history two forces are distinguishable in constant tension. One is an indigenizing principle, a homing instinct, which creates in diverse communities a sense that the church belongs there, that it is “ours.” The other is a “pilgrim” principle that creates within the Christian community a sense that it is not fully at home in this world, so that it comes into tension with its society from its loyalty to Christ. The one tends to localize the vision of the Church, the other to universalize it.”

What a narrow beam we walk on, seeking to express our faith in a way that fits in our culture, but is not loyal to our fully accepting of a culture to which it does not ultimately and finally belong. But there’s more from Walls:

“The two principles are recurrent because each springs directly out of the gospel itself. On the one hand God accepts us in Christ as we are, with all our distinctives — even the thing which mark us off from others–still on us. On the other hand he accepts us in order that we may become something different; that we may be transformed out of the ways of this world into the image of Christ. Either of these forces can be manipulated; we may make the Church so much a place to feel at home, that no one else can live there, or we can use the sense of Christian identity to legitimate some groups economic and social interests. That is civil religion–and it is an ever-present peril when Christianity is well-established in any community. When we give way to this we draw the teeth of the Scriptures so that they will not bite us, while still hoping that they will bite other people.” (bold print mine)

I think the best place to begin in presenting the Christian message to the outside world is to present the points of agreement between the culture and Scripture. But I think that too often we end up preaching only to the points of agreement, and doing so for unhealthy reasons: because we do not want to “rock the boat” and lose long-time Christians in the pews who may disagree with us, or because we do not do enough to critique our own cultural practices in light of the gospel. Continuing to maturity in Christ, however, requires finding those points where our faith requires us to be counter-cultural and speaking and acting in line with the implications of the gospel. Otherwise, we find ourselves using the structures of Christianity to promote our own opinions and self-interests.

I see the “pilgrim” principle at work in a recent post on Ed Stetzer’s blog, where he argues that reports of the demise of the church in America are greatly exaggerated. Since Christianity has often been used as a badge of American identity in the past, a good number of Americans attended church for the sake of that badge. But now that a secular American identity is becoming more normative, civil religion and nominal Christianity in the U.S. are weakening. The church is just as alive as ever, because the true church has never been made up of those who follow “civil religion” or a “communal Christianity” but of those who do church because of Jesus, regardless of the culture’s opinions. And we have the potential to be a more vibrant force for the gospel than ever, if we act on our identity as pilgrims, and our calling to be, in Tim Keller’s words, “a counter-culture for the common good.”

Culture is Good. Sin is Bad.

            Evil is present in every culture we enter in our world. In every culture we enter in our world, good is present. Since culture expresses the shared values of the people who live in and shape it, culture will be a mixed bag of good and bad until Christ returns. Each human culture will continue to express some things that reflect the image of God in humanity and the truths evident through natural revelation, and also to express values that proceed from the depravity and rebellion that entered the world after the Fall. Cultures codify and establish values as habit, custom and practice; some of these are the most exalted values, and others the most debased practices. At first glance, this leads me to think that culture is neutral – a medium that can be used for good or evil.

            But when I think about a more basic definition of culture, and of good and evil, it moves me toward a high view of culture.  Adam and Eve, before the Fall, would have established human culture for the first time, since creating culture – by which I mean establishing ordered ways of relating to each other and our surroundings according to our values – is a way that humans express the capacities that are part of being made in the image of God. Culture will continue to be part of human life in the new creation – prophetic visions of the New Jerusalem picture work, music, art, food  and other products of culture as continuing, though purified of evil and placed under the perfect rule of King Jesus. Culture is an enduring thing, that is not intended by God to be used as a tool of evil. Culture in its pure and authentic form, without the distortion of sin and evil, is a good and godly thing.

     A biblical definition of evil does not view it as an equal force that opposes good. Rather, sin is a somewhat unoriginal expression of enmity toward God and opposition to good. It depends on taking the things God has created and distorting them. Evil – and the Evil One – use things that God created good in wrong ways, for harmful rather than edifying purposes.  Evil can not create things to oppose God on equal terms, but must distort and pervert the things God has created.

    Thus I think it is only appropriate to take a high view of culture, in spite of the wrong and evil things cultures institutionalize around the world, and have condoned throughout history. As God’s church spreads to every last culture on earth, seeds of potential are planted in each culture to be transformed into a unique expression of what culture is supposed to be. The good news of the kingdom of God challenges believers in each culture to ask “How does our cultural way of life look different if Jesus is king over it?” Without losing the richness of expressing values in different ways and through different practices, each culture can be transformed to better express kingdom values. As believers look at their people’s way of life with a commitment to building a biblical worldview, they can discover creative ways to merge traditional values with gospel values. Yes, parts of different cultures will sometimes be lost – but, ideally, it will only be because they do not live up to what culture is supposed to be. Followers of Christ in each of the cultures that exist today will strive to express a facet of what culture was created to be, until the day when all of the distortions will fall away and all cultural diversity will be grounded in the goodness of the Creator of culture.

This high view of culture ought to help the Christian to look at whatever cultures are represented around him with an eye to see all about them that promotes truth, beauty and human flourishing, and to embrace those aspects. The Holy Spirit can help us to be discerning in bringing areas of the culture that are recognizably tainted by sin and brokenness under the light of the Word of God. The Spirit can use believers living on mission in other places to humbly prompt believers native to that culture to work at transforming these cultural patterns in a way that fits with the sound values of their people, yet brings new areas of community life under the rule of God.

“I’d worry about my relevance to God.”

“As I mentioned before, I’m not religious. If I were, however, I think I’d have something more important to worry about than God’s relevance to me. I’d worry about my relevance to God. And in the unlikely event that the cardinals asked me [about choosing a new pope], I’d say that worrying about what’s relevant instead of what’s right is the quickest way to irrelevance.” – George Jonas of the National Post (Canada)

“The real novelty of the New Testament lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ himself, who gives flesh and blood to these concepts – an unprecedented realism.” – Benedict XVI

Hans Boersma included the above quotes in a Books and Culture article about the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI