We were trained in cultural acquisition by Donald Smith – an anthropologist and apostle – in Portland, OR. He has described culture as an onion, with the core giving shape to each layer. By observing the outside and working our way in concentrically, we can amass observations, find connections, and draw conclusions about what makes the heart – the core – tick. And from there, we can learn to describe the gospel in terms that are understood, and in ways that answer the nagging questions resident in the heart of the culture we seek to reach.
One of the core assumptions in the American worldview is that the universe is a machine which can be broken into constituent parts, studied, and eventually mastered. This assumption underlies the way we approach everything we do. Even things that are patently non-mechanical like theology are unconsciously approached this way.
For example, Systematic Theology can take God and pin him down in a pan like a frog on a dissection tray. It often takes a mystery as vast and broad as the cosmos, and reduces it to angelology, bibliology, soteriology, and a bunch of other -ologies, all driven by the assumption that the universe is a machine and should be approached as such. I don’t say this to criticize systematic theology (that’s a different essay), but to show that even when the assumption doesn’t fit, we still operate from it. That’s a sign that it’s down in our core.
Another example is our fascination with “keys”. If the universe is a machine, then life must be about the pursuit of and use of the appropriate keys. How many sermons have you heard that go, “10 keys to ___________”? The fitness industry is consistently going back and forth between which foods are “key”, which exercises are “key” – and stating that they are “key” suggests that by having this one thing, other things become less necessary or unnecessary.
Americans tend to assume that there is one answer, one central cog, one thing – a key – that, if in place, will make the whole thing “work”, and we’re constantly trying to work our way down to that one central thing. This view fits some of the time, but often situations are more complex, tapestries of cause and effect and side-effect woven together in such a way that removing any single thread undoes the whole. In situations like that, there is no key, no central cog – just the thing itself, made up of a million equally essential parts. Still, we will look for a single key, or a few “central” threads, because of this unstated and unconscious assumption on our part that the universe is a machine, and we must find the keys.
The Narnyan core also hides unconscious assumptions which drive the way they think about everything. One Narnyan core assumption that I am proposing is that the universe is a tapestry of connections, and that life is about finding, understanding, creating, and protecting those connections. I have seen this most clearly in 5 ways.
- Language – Each of my language nurturers have corrected grammar errors or explained preferred ways of saying things using the notion of “connection”. When I have failed to use suffixes that match, the correction goes, “No. It doesn’t pull together. It doesn’t make the connection.” It’s not that the subject and verb don’t agree, it’s that I have failed to speak in a way that demonstrates or creates the appropriate connection. Similarly, some things are said certain ways to make clearer or more pronounced the connection between two words in a sentence.
- “A connection emerged” – Sometimes you meet someone and you find that you have some things in common…went to the same school, knew the same people, had the same hobby, whatever. To an American, this is of passing interest. With Narnyans this seems to change outcomes (I need to triangulate this one further). One example is when a local friend of mine was pulled over by the police. The initial interaction was harsh, with words exchanged that my contact described as inappropriately rude. From there, however, things changed as they continued to talk and found that they both went to the same high school, but at different times. Further, they both knew the same person – 10 years ago. Discovery of these commonalities changed the outcome completely. When I asked my contact what had happened, he plainly stated as though it was obvious, “A connection emerged.” So, afterwards the policeman said, “If there are ever any problems with other cops, call me.” The situation went from cursing and a likely huge ticket to my friend being let go and the promise of future help because “a connection was spontaneously created and emerged”. When I pressed my friend further about how to create connections like that, he told me you don’t create those – they emerge on their own and their existence changes how things happen. Then, he looked hard at me and said, “Everywhere, at all times, connections are necessary.”
- Friendship – When I’ve sought Narnyan coaching about friendship and relationships, without fail my coach has used “connection” and not “relationship” to describe what’s happening. For example, when talking with me about maintaining relationships, my local friends don’t say “maintain relationships”. Rather, they refer to “guarding/keeping connections”. Each one has said that friends should be routinely called for no reason other than to keep the connection. Different individuals have suggested different frequencies of calling/texting (between once monthly and 10 times a day), but always the reason is to “maintain the connection”.
- Detective work – In American English, when we describe what Sherlock Holmes does, we say he investigates crimes using the process of deduction. Deduction – subtracting potential causes until there is only one left. It’s very, very interesting to me the contrast between this and the Narnyan notion of how an investigation is carried out. The word for this process is “establishment-of-connection” – the making of connections. When I asked for a description of how this works, my nurturer said the detective attempts to discover or make connections between the victim and potential perps, between perps and motives, between X and Y. It’s not a subtraction of potentials (deduction), it’s starting with the event/victim and seeking to discover the connections that are there. The contrast in thinking approaches suggests that the assumptions that drive both are different, and further suggests that the notion of “connection” goes right down to the Narnyan core.
Our cultural acquisition training happened in an authentic context: by seeking to understand the Chinese immigrant community in Portland so we could articulate the gospel compellingly to them. In our training we learned that two characteristics of the Chinese cultural core is the quest for harmony and a strong attention to the past and the future that can often push the present to the margins. Or, put another way, the present is interpreted in light of the past and the future, which get the most attention.
This being the case, we saw that presentations of the gospel that centered on the individual’s experience or their present need weren’t likely to be particularly helpful. Rather, we learned to present a Story to the Chinese that graphically demonstrated that God made the cosmos harmonious, and that harmony had been broken in the deep past. But God had acted to restore harmony through the cross and resurrection, and that in the deep future, the world would be characterized by a degree and quality of harmony which it had never known, because of the cross and resurrection, and through the People of Harmony. Now, you can become part of the People of Harmony. In other words, we learned to articulate the News such that it was obviously good news to our audience. It answered their questions in terms that fit their view of the world.
Likewise, if it is the case that “connection” is a central core idea in the Narnyan worldview, then there are some practical implications to consider. First, the incarnated gospel. We may need to consider how we use our resources (time, money, phone cards, emotional energy) for the purposes of creating and maintaining connections. This resonates with our commitment to reach, and our guiding principle of learning suggests that we focus some energy on learning how people maintain connections, and what it says when we do and when we don’t. We need to think about our weekly planners in light of this.
Second, the proclaimed gospel. Discussions of the Fall of Man could be presented as the cosmic “connections” being cut through the sin of man. And the current world situation – war, loneliness, infidelity, famine, godlessness, confused religion – being the fallout of mankind living “dis-connected”. The gospel could be presented as God’s means of restoring these integral-connections between God and man, man and man, and man and creation. Further, the Narnyan penchant for conveying important truth through story could be respected and built upon through the judicious and creative use of the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
An expat friend here once said to me, “I don’t think anyone has successfully asked and answered yet the question, “What is the good news for Narnyans?” I think he might be right, and that lack of fully contextualized message might be part of why the message spreads so slowly here.
Discovering core assumptions should help. More work needs to be done with this, both in triangulation and in experimentation with these means of spreading the gospel, but I think that the beginnings of an answer to my friend’s question are taking shape, and I am hopeful about what that could mean.