Cultural Anthropology is now a necessity for mission studies. Surely no student of inculturation would want to miss out course material on cultural anthropology, especially if is in good quality and produced by a top university. The good news is MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has just a course like this. Under its Open Courseware, MIT has since make the undergraduate (and some graduate) level Anthropology Courses available online. The emphasis of some of these courses are on Cultural Anthropology. The Introduction to Anthropology, for example, gives students a good basic grasp of Anthropology from the cultural perspectives.
Amongst the courses made available are Anthropological Theory, Seminar in Ethnography and Fieldwork, Myth, Ritual, and Symbolism, Identity and Difference, Gender, Sexuality, and Society, Ethnic and National Identity, Rethinking the Family, Sex, and Gender, Power: Interpersonal, Organizational and Global Dimensions, Culture, Embodiment and the Senses, Food and Culture, Anthropology Through Speculative Fiction, Marketing, Microchips and McDonalds: Debating Globalization, Documenting Culture, Technology and Culture, Energy Decisions, Markets, and Policies, Cross-Cultural Investigations: Technology and Development, Social Theory and Analysis (Graduate level), and The Anthropology of Cybercultures (Graduate level).
The course syllabus, structure/calendar, reading list, lecture notes, assignments, and study materials are all free for download online.
By the way, there are of course resources which deals with the relationship between missiology and anthropology. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries by Hiebert is one of them.
These types are familiar to those of us in the Christian circle. I am not sure if this would ring a bell for others who are not in this ‘culture’. It is obvious that Christians in general has created for themselves a certain common understanding, which forms certain identifiable cultural tracks, and one of those is this!
Culture in the postmodern context is seen not as ‘static, homogenous, closed, ordered and territorial’ but ‘ever-changing, fragmented, porous, chaotic, and translocal.’ Culture in postmodernity is:
…a pattern of meanings encased in a network of symbols, myths, narratives and rituals, created by individuals and subdivisions, as they struggle to respond to the competitive pressures of power and limited resources in a rapidly globalizing and fragmented world, and instructing its adherents about what is considered to be the correct way to feel, think and behave.
 Arbuckle, G.A. (2010) Culture, Inculturation, and Theologians: A Postmodern Critique (Liturgical Press), xxi, 4-5.
 Ibid., 1-16, 17; ritual – the ‘stylized or repetitive symbolic use of bodily movement and gesture within a social context, to express and articulate meaning’, Arbuckle, G.A. (1990) Earthing the Gospel: An Inculturation Handbook for the Pastoral Worker (London: Geofrey Chapman), 96, citing Bocock, R. (1974) Ritual in Industrial Society: A Sociological Analysis of Ritualism in Modern England (London: George Allen & Unwin), 35-59.
An Atheist Church – Atheistic Culture Coming of Age
I heard about this new Atheist Church in Britain a few days ago and wondered how would a Christian feel when attending the assembly. My questions are answered by this post, which is an actual account of a person experiencing it on one Sunday.
There are two things mentioned in the post which strike me. First, the talk by a physicist, which reminds me of how my little venture into science years ago actually brought me closer to God. So if the report of the above blog post is accurate, the talk by the atheist church has strengthened my faith for God! This brings us to further questions. Why is it, that I am not experiencing such awe when listening to an ordinary preaching in an ordinary Christian church? I suspect this is due to the way I am wired. I think I am scientific in my thinking, and I am naturally a skeptic So the scientific method of inquiry suits me. However this method is normally not employed in the Christian church. This in turns, also shows how narrow a Christian experience can be at this age. A typical evangelical, for example, has been accustomed to only a certain ways of thinking. A book which I reviewed, ‘Pagan Christianity’ has much to say about how this come by. Again a study into how modern evangelicalism come into being will also help. With the understanding that the way we worship can actually be richer than what we have experienced so far, the church will be able to look into various ways to redeem the meaning of a Christian gathering and the various creative ways we could worship the Creator.
The other thing which strikes me is how far a certain atheist culture has formed. The video above specifically mentions the cross – the symbol of Christianity, which in the atheist church can only be observed at the first aid box. (Of course the very reason why the cross ended up at the first aid box will again bring us to its Christian root) But one could only be sensitive (read ‘hostile’) to another symbol when one feels that his culture is under threat. It is common knowledge that atheism has been active in Britain in recent years, and as some atheists imply, the movement has become a religion itself. Apparently an atheist wrote to the leader of the atheist church, relating their assembly in a church is akin to Jews in the concentration camp! Thus, this is a clear statement, that here we have a meta-narrative, a set of symbols (or lack of it), a certain ritual and worldview – all summing up to form an emerging (or rather, to some, already matured) culture. So when an assembly like this takes place, it shows how a certain philosophy has finally move out of the arena of ‘thinking’, into the arena of ‘being’ and ‘doing’, and ‘doing it together’. The ‘atheistic culture’ has come of age.
When Stearns wrote about waiving goodbye to Christian America and saying hello to true Christianity I cannot help but to reflect on whether we can separate symbols and belief. Stearns’ arguments have their merits. Surely, nominal Christianity has always been the opposite of authentic Christianity, and as America now actually moves out of it one may naturally think that the time has come for people to finally consider the Christian faith without needing to be conversant to its symbols.
However, things may not be as straight-forward as it seems. Firstly, as Christian America converts into Secular America, new symbols will be adopted. Entering into a typical corporate culture entails the adoption of its cultural elements, including that, among others, the ‘belief’ in free-market capitalism, the ‘ritual’ of certain shopping exprience and no less, taking on of the symbols of the said culture. For example, if the symbol of the cross, in general, represents the Christian faith, the symbols of some logos, like that of Google, or that of the Guy Fawkes’ mask symbolise deeper meanings too. People simply move from one culture to another, or in the typical postmodern pattern, pick-and-choose from a variety of cultures to form their own very private culture or grouping together with the like-minded to form a sub-culture. So strictly, people do not move from Christian America into a neutral ground, but will be or have been absorbed into other culture(s) in the process. This is typical of the postmodern condition, where people are exposed to various cultures and have largely skeptical towards a self-proclaimed, fix meta-narrative.
So leaving Christian America may actually mean entering into secularism, which in turns, means new symbols embraced. It is of course true, that Christians have always keen to adopt symbols of the world. In so doing, Christians relate those symbols to certain values which they cherish. In other words, it is an attempt to Christianise symbols. Obviously the Roman form of execution, the cross has been Christianised. A more interesting example would be the obelisks. This Egyptian symbol can be observed at various ‘Christian’ places, no less at the centre of the St. Peter’s Square.
Thus, I am not convinced that as we waive goodbye to Christian America, we would then be welcoming the true Christianity. What follows would be a time when Christianity embracing and ‘Christianising’ new symbols, as it slowly taking another cultural form. One example, is the change of church architecture, where new symbols replace old ones. Some may bemoan the disappearance of the cross as the centrepiece of the design but one must scrutinise the reason for our displeasure. It is not enough to just say that ‘it used to be there, right at the centre of the front’. Instead one must scrutinise the reason for the concern – is it due to our concern that we may lose sight of the symbol which reminds us of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross? What does the cross mean to us? I believe the majority evangelicals, which follow the tradition of a deep appreciation and belief in salvation by grace through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, would find the cross a symbol which is able to best capture this belief. However we can argue that God’s creation and Christ’s resurrection should have no less significant in the whole grand story of God’s redemption of man. Should then we have symbols for them in place of the cross? So maybe the cross is emphasised because the evangelicals find it meaningful in relation to their belief. If the evangelicals and the reformed churches emphasise the cross, surely the Pentecostal and other newer churches which put more weight on other aspects of God and His mission, would adopt other symbols. See example here.
Stearns authored the book: