by Marvin Newell
InterVarsity Press, 2016.
—Reviewed by Birgit Herppich, Fuller Theological Seminary; WEC International; former missionary in Ghana.
The unique contribution of this book is that it investigates dynamics of crossing cultures during biblical times and draws conclusions for cross-cultural encounters today. Marvin Newell brings decades of missionary experience in Asia and in missions teaching and leadership to this task. Building on an anthropological definition of culture as “the distinct beliefs, values
and customs of a particular group of people that determine how they think, feel, and behave” (p. 17), he examines the beginnings of human culture and cultural diversity, and identifies Abraham as the “Father of Blessing for All Cultures.” Each chapter centers on a biblical passage, describes the setting, and presents ‘cross-cultural insights and a practical ‘crossing takeaway’ for missionaries today.
For example, Newell identifies Joseph as a victim of cross-cultural human trafficking, Moses as multicultural leader, the Queen of Sheba as foreign seeker, and Daniel as a transnational student seeking to stay true to his God. He highlights honor/shame issues in the relationship between Sara and Hagar, and power distance issues in David’s relationship to Uriah.
In the New Testament he takes lessons from Jesus’ cross-cultural encounters and identifies “seven marks of cross-cultural success” in John 17. Naturally, accounts from the cross-cultural movement reported in Acts are explored in detail, and finally the “doxological diversity” envisioned in Revelation. Appendices list distinct cross-cultural encounters in Judges and Acts, and provide a lesson guide.
Newell identifies the Bible as “portrayer”, “sculptor”, and “appraiser” of cultures (p. 13-14). Scripture portrays cultural beliefs, values, and customs many times uncritically. But the Bible also shaped cultures “to reflect standards of morality and social well-being God always intended for humans to enjoy” (p. 14). Finally, scripture presents objective norms and standards by which all cultures are judged. Outlining these three aspects of his analysis of biblical stories and events that are cross-cultural in nature, Newell attempts to present a “biblical theology of culture” and identifies key features of such a theology.
Newell critiques anthropology and intercultural studies as imperfect and poses the teaching of scripture on culture as superseding insights from those disciplines. This is an unnecessary juxtaposition because it is these disciplines that provide terms and categories which Newell uses in his biblical analysis to describe and understand cultural features and differences.
The consistent use of the word “cross-cultural” perpetuates one-way assumptions prevalent in much missionary thinking. However, it is clear throughout the Bible and history that intercultural encounters always transform thinking, values, and behaviors of the believers as well as the people they engage. Newell acknowledges that “biblical characters grew in their understanding of God, the world, and themselves through … cross-cultural experience” (p. 21), a fact the term “intercultural” would express more adequately.
Despite these points of critique, this is a unique study of culture and cultural encounters in the Bible and therefore should be included in any reading list for Christians preparing to cross into other cultural contexts, to communicate the gospel, and to work with communities espousing different cultural beliefs, values, and practices.
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EMQ, Vol. 53, No. 4. Copyright © 2017 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.