A recent post on “The Yanomamö Controversy” (a battle ground case in the field of anthropology) raised the question “Who is right: the anthropologist desiring to preserve their ‘native instincts’ from the West or the Western, evangelical missionary who seeks to rescue them from their ‘heart of darkness’ against God by telling them about the Son of God who seeks to make them the “new creatures” He created them to be?”
The short answer is the latter, but a qualification is necessary. The problem with the secular anthropologist is not a desire to study and analyze culture. All human beings, made in the image of God, have cultural elements unique to their community.
Many of these cultural elements are morally neutral: a preference of raw fish vs. the cooked variety; clothes with a vivid display of colors vs. a neutral, toned-down style; greeting with a kiss on the cheek vs. a handshake (or no touching at all); loud, boisterous conversation style vs. reserved, formal style. All of these are examples of cultural identity markers that are neither repudiated by nor endorsed in the Bible. They can be rightly termed “morally neutral.”
Isaac asking Jacob to “come here…and kiss me” (Gen 27:26) and Paul’s command for the Roman church to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16) is not conclusive evidence that the biblical way for believers today to greet one another is with a peck on the cheek. Rather, it was the normal, “morally neutral” manner of greeting for both of those cultural contexts.
Readers of the Bible would do well to employ the guidelines from cultural anthropology in such case studies (although hermeneutical principles existed long before the formalized practice of “cultural anthropology.”) This is a legitimate use of cultural analysis.
This might sound contradictory to the statement presented in the previous article regarding anthropology and the gospel: “The study of human behavior is not a neutral process. Everyone from academic anthropologists to junior high students makes assessments of human behavior based on one’s moral framework.”
The problem with secular anthropology is that it does not, indeed it cannot, deal merely with “morally neutral” matters, because the goal of such studies is to get beyond the basic practices of the subjects to their underlying motivations or world view. And herein lies the rub.
A secular anthropologist, despite his alleged pursuit of “pure science,” cannot analyze a culture’s world view without making assumptions and judgments of that world view based on his own presuppositions. In that sense there are no “neutral observers” of culture. In order to produce a report based on his observations, the anthropologist must run those observations through a necessarily subjective grid.
He can say “these people prefer raw fish over cooked fish” based on general observation, but to report on the world view which drives them to perform a religious ceremony prior to consuming the fish is to go beyond the realm of science to the sphere of metaphysics (the “nature of reality”).
The secular anthropologist who views collective opinion as the determining factor of a group’s morality would view the “good news” from the Bible (brought by non-native people) as an intrusion and pollutant to that group’s identity. Telling the Yanomamö, from a “foreign book,” that they are sinners (Rom 3:23) and in need of divine intervention (Rom 5:6) from a monotheistic (Deut 6:4), super-God (Psalm 86:8) who sent his son to take their due payment of wrath from the super-God (Is 53:6) is tantamount to feeding the group poison, to many anthropologists.
To distinguish the differences between a kiss in Jacob and Paul’s time and ours is a noteworthy pursuit of anthropology. To speak of the gospel of Jesus as a myth, at best, and poison, at worst, is damnable.
Part 3 of this series will discuss the role of the foreigner who seeks to communicate the gospel of Jesus in a culturally relevant, yet biblically faithful manner to a people group such as the Yanomamö.