50. Sports as a metaphor for culture

What is culture? There is a current debate (National Post, March 2-, 2007) about whether fashion should be classified as culture, with implications for government funding.  Canada has policies promoting “multiculturalism.”  I have read books and heard sermons concerning the need for Christians to remain separate from “the prevailing culture.”  These diverse nuances of the term have resulted in confusion concerning the meaning of “culture” for the cross-cultural minister of the gospel.

From an anthropological perspective, which is the primary way the term is used in missiology, culture refers to the relationship that the members of a particular ethnic group have with their environment and each other.  This includes all aspects of life that provide meaning for that people group such as legends, laws, priorities, structures (material, organizational or conceptual), customs and artifacts.  Worldview, on the other hand, refers to the conceptual framework or beliefs about reality from which cultural items gain their significance. 

There are universals common to all cultures (although there is no agreed upon list of these universals), but it is the differences between cultures that provide cultural identity and are the cause of much perplexity and conflict between people groups.  This is the reason why the politically correct program of multiculturalism in Canada is so difficult.  As a philosophy of accommodation so that cultures can co-exist while maintaining their separate identities, multiculturalism is predicated upon an assumption that there are sufficient agreed upon commonalities for such a project to succeed.  However, not only are there disagreements about the identification of these commonalities, but even when they are identified at a theoretical level, the practical outworking of these values is elusive.  For example, western “universals” such as “free speech,” “equal rights,” and the “rule of law” are understood and prioritized in fundamentally different ways in other parts of the world.

hockeyAs a humorous illustration of how cultures conceptualize reality in different ways, consider the following imaginary sports analogy:

The country is Canada.  The city, Hockeytown – a city in which only one sport, hockey, has ever been played.  It is the only sport that has ever been imagined by the residents.  To them hockey is not just one of many sports, but is what defines sport.  Bobb Yorr has just returned from a visit to another city in which he was introduced to the sport of Tennis.  Grett Ski has never been out of his city and so, for him, “sports” is defined by ice rinks, hockey sticks and hockey nets.

  • Grett: Hey, Bobb, long time no see!  What have you been up to?
  • Bobb: I’ve just got back and I’ve discovered another sport.
  • Grett: Another sport?  What do you mean – another way to play hockey?
  • Bobb: Um, well it’s a sport like hockey is a sport, but totally different.
  • Grett: How can it be like hockey and totally different.  That doesn’t make sense.  Do the teams line up differently or something?
  • Bobb: Well there are only 2 players.
  • Grett: What! Only two players on the whole team? How do they take shifts?
  • Bobb: No, only two people in the game, one player on each team and they play the whole game.
  • Grett: No way! Who do they pass to?
  • Bobb: Well, they pass to each other.
  • Grett: That’s just dumb, that’s not hockey at all.
  • Bobb: No it’s called Tennis
  • Grett: Why is it called Tennis? It should be called Two-is if you’ve only got two players.
  • Bobb: Uh… I don’t know.
  • Grett: So you got two guys in the middle of the ice passing a puck back and forth. Sounds boring.
  • Bobb: No, they use a ball and they bounce it with their sticks over the net.
  • Grett: How do they score if they keep wacking it over the net?  Can’t they get it in the net?
  • Bobb: They don’t want to get it into the net or the other player gets points.
  • Grett: So when one player scores the other player gets the point.  They might as well shoot it into their own net then and get an own goal!
  • Bobb: But there is only one net and it is right in the middle of the court.
  • Grett: What’s a court?
  • Bobb: Well, it’s like a rink, but with no ice.
  • Grett: What! That’ll wreck their skates!  Wait, don’t tell me – I bet these guys can’t even skate, can they.
  • Bobb: They don’t want to.
  • Grett: So you’ve discovered a new game like hockey where two guys who can’t skate pass a ball back and forth with their sticks trying hard not to score in the one hockey net that they have put in the middle of the rink.
  • Bobb: Well, sort of…
  • Grett: You’ve been drinking, haven’t you?  How long does this game last?
  • Bobb: It depends.  Different times.
  • Grett: Why? Nobody has a clock in that city?
  • Bobb: No, no they play until one person wins 6 games and that’s a set and then when someone has 3 sets they win the match.
  • Grett: How do you get a set without a match?  If it doesn’t match, how is it a set?  You’re just talking nonsense.  I mean the winner would have to win a minimum of, um, let’s see, 3 carry the 5… 18 games.  He’d be exhausted.  Unless the games are really short.
  • Bobb: They are.
  • Grett: Just one goal per game?
  • Bobb: No, every time someone misses the other person gets some points, but it always changes.
  • Grett: HA! Caught you.  You just contradicted yourself.
  • Bobb: What do you mean?
  • Grett: You said when a person scored into the net the other person got a point, but now you are saying when a person misses, the other person gets a point.  So you are just putting me on.
  • Bobb: No, because when you shoot the ball in the net, that counts as a miss.
  • Grett: When they score, they miss. That’s just crazy talk.
  • Bobb: No, seriously. The first time someone misses the other person gets 15 points and it’s called 15 love.
  • Grett: One mistake and the other person gets 15 goals.
  • Bobb: yeah
  • Grett: And then they start talking about love.
  • Bobb: That’s how they keep score.
  • Grett: So when they drop their gloves, it’s not fighting that they have in mind.
  • Bobb: That’s not part of the game.
  • Grett:  Somebody has been messing with your mind. It’s about time you came home and left that sissy stuff behind.  Come and play a man’s game.

Lesson: Culture is not about playing the same game with different terminology as if a word in one culture means exactly the same thing as a word in another.  Not only that, but the terminology of another culture refers to concepts that are often fundamentally different from our way of thinking.  Culture must be learned by living in another context and seeking to understand how other people think, value and view the world.  Only when we understand how the particular culture of a people group facilitates successful interaction with their environment, can we make sense of their terminology, rules and perspectives.  Rather than trying to understand their worldview through the rules and values of the way we relate to our environment, we enter into a whole new way of experiencing life.

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Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development