Part IV: The Benefits of “Christ-centered worldviews”
When translating the Old Testament in the Sindhi language of Pakistan or when teaching from the Old Testament to Sindhis I am constantly amazed at the similarities of culture and worldview. One believer enthusiastically exclaimed to me, “The reason why we understand the OT and you don’t is because it is just like our culture!” Although a slight exaggeration, nonetheless the similarity between certain OT worldview concepts and concepts of the Sindhi Muslim people is remarkable.
One such concept is the Hebrew word “Sheol,” the world of the dead. Apart from classical literature there is no equivalent concept in the English west and the term requires significant explanation in footnotes and commentaries for the average reader. On the other hand, the Sindhi people have a very similar concept called “pattal,” the Pit. This is simply the place people go when they die without comment upon their future state. The development of this concept in the OT, such as the mocking of previously deceased warriors as the soldiers of Egypt come to join them in Ezekiel 32, resonates well with the Sindhi people.
Even as God spoke to people within OT worldviews, so his word can make an impact within the worldview of the 21st century Muslim Sindhi. The cross-cultural minister of the gospel does not present a universal “Christian Worldview” as a replacement for another worldview, but seeks to present Christ as relevant within that worldview. Even as God spoke relevantly to and through several diverse worldviews in the Bible, so the gospel can be presented so that “Christ-centered worldviews” result.
Gospel relevance and Worldviews
Worldview affects the understanding and application of our one faith in Christ because different perspectives, priorities and values will result in questions and concerns that vary from culture to culture. While exploring the meaning of Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet among the Sindhi people, I was surprised by their strong condemnation of Peter because of his refusal to have his feet washed. In the Sindhi culture the teacher commands respect to the point of requiring immediate obedience. The teacher is to be trusted even when the student does not understand. This is a very different dynamic than is found in the west. Thus the interaction of the Sindhi people with this passage of God’s word takes on a different flavor than when discussed in a Canadian setting.
During my recent trip to the Sindh I had opportunity to discuss sin and forgiveness with a Muslim acquaintance. His question was very relevant to his context but of little concern for westerners when considering Christ’s work on the cross. He asked, “How can God forgive the sins that we commit against others? It is the person we have offended that must forgive. God cannot provide forgiveness for another.” We looked at the story of the prodigal son and the man commented that the father was able to forgive the son because the son had sinned against the father, not against others. Despite the number of times I had studied this passage and preached on it, I had never noticed that the son’s sin against others is not dealt with in the parable.
Both these examples demonstrate the importance of working within other worldviews when presenting the gospel cross-culturally. “An insight never strikes us as really true or truly real until it can be related to those symbols which most profoundly inform our lives.”1 In order for the gospel to have impact in a culture, it first must resonate with the fundamental values and beliefs, i.e., the worldview of that culture.
Worldviews as windows onto reality
A further benefit of bringing Christ into worldviews rather than promoting a universal “Christian worldview” is that unique perspectives on reality can result in a fresh understanding of the Bible. A student at ACTS2 shared the following insight gained by viewing God’s word through the eyes of an Asian worldview:
Let me share [an] example of how only two years of living in Central Asia changed how I read Scripture. It partly has to do with the shame/honour motif. I used to think that Laban in Genesis was a pretty shady character. Besides lying in the way he played fast and loose with Jacob’s wages, he also forced him to marry a woman he didn’t want. And as a Western evangelical Christian, I viewed polygamy as something really terrible.
Then I lived in Central Asia, where to this day siblings often get married in the birth order. Hospitality shown towards strangers, and especially relatives, is a high value and proof of a host’s decency. And one of the greatest cultural values is the maintenance of peace (or at least the appearance of harmony), even at the cost of lying. And though illegal in the republics of the former Soviet Union, polygamy was an historical fact-of-life and to a limited extent it is still practiced unofficially.
No one ever suggested I reconsider my views of Laban, it just happened. One day I was thinking about that story and suddenly saw it quite differently, perhaps through Central Asian eyes. A visitor appears at Laban’s tent, who is a relative, no less. Laban is obliged to host him indefinitely. Of course Jacob proves himself useful, but then asks to marry the younger daughter when the older one isn’t yet married. Was Jacob being insensitive or just clueless? Poor Laban — he’s been put in an extremely awkward position. Should he honour his guest’s request at the price of dishonouring his oldest daughter? So first he stalls, and gains seven years to plan the next step. At the end of that time Leah still isn’t married. (Perhaps because that crafty Laban has already figured out that he could keep Jacob around another seven years if he played things right.) Regardless of Laban’s motives, his solution is rather clever in that it enables Jacob to get what he wants (Rachel) while preserving Leah’s honour in getting married before her sister. Thus no one was shamed, as would have been the case if Laban had either refused Jacob’s request or simply acquiesced. Peace was maintained (though at the cost of trust). From a Central Asian perspective, good on Laban!3
Present Christ, not a worldview
The role of the cross-cultural minister is not to debunk the worldview of other cultures by presenting one “Christian worldview,” but to present Christ as he relates to their reality. As believers work out the meaning of the gospel within their culture they gain new insights that can both enhance and challenge western theological assumptions. Each culturally shaped theology becomes a window onto the vastness and beauty of our Lord and Savior. As the gospel of Christ penetrates the culture, there will be transformations in that worldview that will reflect the power of God’s word and bring glory to his name.
In the next article I will provide theological support for “Christ-centered Worldviews” based on the incarnation.
- (1) Wink, W. 1973. The Bible in Human Transformation, Philadelphia: Fortress press. p. 64.
- (2) Northwest Baptist Seminary is part of the ACTS consortium of seminaries.
- (3) From a personal email (name withheld by request), March 21, 2005. Used with permission