It was my wife's first Christmas with my side of the family. All of us, some 15 or 20 family members, were gathered together on every chair, every open spot on the hearth, and every bare spot on the living room carpet. It was always our custom to spend Christmas mornings and early afternoons together—really together—that way.
As the day wore on, though, something was making Sara, my wife, noticeably uncomfortable. She pulled me aside and said, "I really need a break — to go take a walk or something. Is that okay, or will your family be upset with me?"
The question caught me completely by surprise. Leave the living room during Christmas family time? Who ever thought of doing that?
Later that day, after the Christmas meal was over and the day was moving on toward sunset (which seemed to be the signal that we were free to go our separate ways), Sara and I had a chat with another of the in-laws, who sympathized with my wife's desire to take a break: "Sure, it's strange to stay together in one room that way, but it's the way the Gilsons do things, and I've learned to adjust to it."
Strange? I thought that was how every family did Christmas. I thought it was right to do it that way. But on that Christmas Day I received an unexpected gift of insight: The way we do things isn't the only way.
A flying fish knows something most fish don't know, and don't know that they don't know. Ask most fish to describe water, and they won't have any idea what you're talking about. Ask a flying fish, though, and it will say, "I've seen a different part of the world, and I know there's more to it than water; and because of that I understand better what water really is." That day was a flying-fish experience for me, a moment to learn something that I hadn't known that I didn't know: that our family's way of doing Christmas was just one way of doing Christmas.
What's true of families and flying fish is also true of cultures: It's very instructive to learn about the world beyond our own. I've been reading Paul Hiebert's Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change. Hiebert, who died in 2007, was one of our generation's great missiological anthropologists—a student of world culture as it relates to missionary work. He was also a great teller of tales from cultures around the world, including our own in North America.
In Transforming Worldviews he intersperses stories of North American culture among those of other places, as if the Western world is just one culture among many—which it is. It's hard for those of us inside this culture to see it that way, but this book produced for me a whole school of flying-fish experiences, demonstrating that the way we do things isn't the only way, and it isn't necessarily the right way.
The lesson was reinforced for me in a couple other recent books. One was Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview, byMichael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew. Goheen and Bartholomew shine a bright biblical spotlight on Western culture. On page 26, for example, they contrast some of our culture's deepest yet least examined assumptions with a more biblical view:
In our contemporary culture . . . two quite different stories are told. One is the story of evolution, of the development of the species through the survival of the strong, and the story of the rise of civilization, our type of civilization, and its success in giving humankind mastery of nature. The other story is the one embodied in the Bible, the story of creation and fall, of God's election of a people to be the bearers of his purpose for humankind, and of the coming of the one in whim that purpose is to be fulfilled. These are two different and incompatible stories.
Echoing a note found in Hiebert, Goheen and Bartholomew speak of the way technological progress in the West has spilled over into a kind of technologizing of humanity (pp. 114-115):
In the Enlightenment view, scientific reason was to be autonomous, liberated from a (Christian) faith increasingly dismissed as obscurantist, ignorant, and superstitious. Moreover, scientific reason was to be instrumental, employed to control, shape, and predict the world. . . .
In Enlightenment thought, scientific reason, if applied to human society, could organize it in a rational way and so achieve progress in the social sphere. Since Newton's physics had succeeded on the basis of his discoveries of immutable order in the physical world, perhaps a similar order could be discerned in the social, political, and educational world as well.
This tendency was especially apparent when Frederick W. Taylor brought "scientific management" to the workplace around a hundred years ago. Taylor's ideal was to analyze and prescribe the "One Best Way" in which workers should make virtually every motion. Eventually this devolved into the belief that workers should not think about their work: Their managers would do that for them. Human performance was technologized to the point of irrationality.
Taylorism failed. It never had a chance, really; even on the job, it turns out, humans stubbornly insist on being humans, not machines. Consultants and business schools now instruct leaders to inspire and "empower" their employees. Yet even this leaves something to be desired. On a recent road trip I listened to Gary Hamel's reading of his book What Matters Now: How to Win In a World of Relentless Change, Ferocious Competition, and Unstoppable Innovation. It sounds like a business book, and of course it is, but it's also a kind of worldview study in its own right: a comparison of the cultures of different business and political organizations (churches, too).
One of Hamel's most insistent questions is, what will it take for us to treat each other as human beings in our organizations, rather than as virtually interchangeable parts in the machinery? We no longer spoon-feed workers the "One Best Way," but we still insist on Be efficient! Be effective! Waste no effort, waste no opportunity, waste no money!
Meanwhile, says Hamel, one corporate leader seems to have chosen a truly human motivation for himself and his company—something not quite rational, something that goes against all scientific modernism, something counter-cultural. What this leader kept pursuing was joy. Joy in design, joy in production, joy in the customer experience.
It worked. I'm certainly enjoying the iPad on which I'm writing this column. The leader who chose this path was Steve Jobs, the late founder and CEO of Apple, who revolutionized not just one but at least four entire industries (computing, music, mobile phones, and software sales).
Jobs wasn't a believer in Christ, and by other accounts it's clear he was far from perfect as a leader, but by God's grace he had a grasp on an important piece of reality. Knowingly or not, he brought a piece of biblical worldview to bear on his business, while also challenging some of Western business culture's most central assumptions. Joy? Where do we enter that on the balance sheet? Yet the results speak for themselves.
Our culture's familiar way of doing things can so easily seem normal and right, until we see another way demonstrated before us. Now, I suppose on some things it's probably on approximately the right track. On others it's obviously wrong, for those who view it through biblical lenses. On some things, though, it might take a flying-fish experience before we even notice there's a question to be asked. What about America's consumerism? Our individualism? Our technologizing of human performance and relationships?
Once in a while we need to leave our culture behind so we can see it as it is.
The first and most important foreign culture (if I may call it that) to compare ours to is the Kingdom of God as revealed in Scripture. It's particularly enlightening to discover how Christians in other cultures understand God's Kingdom. The contrast helps us to see where we've confused Western-ism with Christianity. Cross-cultural travel (across the world or into other sections of our own cities) is probably the surest way to make such discoveries. Cross-cultural reading, drawn from other parts of the world and other periods in history, helps too.
And why is this important? Flying fish see the reality of water more clearly than fish that swim only in the depths. Humans who see things more clearly have a capacity that flying fish lack: we can do something about what we see. Much of the value of worldview study is in seeing our own culture more clearly, so we can make more of a difference in it.
Tom Gilsonis a Campus Crusade for Christ/Cru writer and strategist currently on assignment to BreakPoint. He blogs atThinkingChristian.net. His new e-book,True Reason,is availablehere.
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