by Charles H. Kraft
As pointed out in my preceding article on this subject, the unreflective missionary may easily find himself assigned by the people to whom he goes to a role and status that is quite damaging to the task of communicating Christ crossculturally.
As pointed out in my preceding article on this subject (see July, 1973 issue of EMQ), the unreflective missionary may easily find himself assigned by the people to whom he goes to a role and status that is quite damaging to the task of communicating Christ crossculturally.1 He may, for example, discover that his actions and words are being interpreted by the people in quite a different way than he intends simply because he does not come across to them as a real flesh and blood human being according to their definition of human beingness.
But their cultural world is different, operating as it does on the basis of a completely different set of expectations and definitions. They assign outsiders positions (or nonpositions) within their society according to culturallydefined stereotypes that may be very difficult to get beyond (especially if the missionary is unaware of the damage done to his efforts at communication by a failure to break out of the isolation which the stereotype imposes upon him).
Our Lord, however, was active with respect to such stereotyping. He did not simply fit into the expectations of the people to whom he ministered. He broke through the stereotype, choosing a role that enabled people to understand him within their cultural frame of reference. In the process, he demonstrated the validity of several of the basic principles to which the modern study of communication theory points. The explication of these principles can be very helpful to the missionary who seeks to "fill Jesus’ shoes" in some cultural world other than that in which he grew up. For in many ways the activity of God in Christ in crossing the supraculture-culture2 border is similar to what the missionary goes through when he crosses from one cultural world to another.
There are at least four principles of communication theory discernable from Jesus’ approach to communication that are applicable to our approach. These are illustrated in the previous article. The aim here is to make them more explicit, with the hope that by becoming more conscious of these principles missionaries may more effectively apply them in their ministries. In summary form these principles are: (1) For information to be conveyed accurately both the giver and the receiver of the information must operate within the same frame of reference; (2) Within a frame of reference, the greater the predictability of allowable segments of the message, the smaller the impact of that message and, conversely, the lower the predictability the greater the impact of the message; (3) The greater the specificity of the form in which the material is presented, the greater the impact; and (4) Something discovered y the receptor of the message has greater impact than something presented in predigested, generalized form by the communicator.3
With regard to principle number one, the frame of reference may be as small as a single linguistic context, a given technical jargon such as that of a given science or that of children of a given age, or it may be as all-encompassing as all of human life. Significant intermediate points between these extremes are the frame of reference of a whole language or that of a whole culture. People attempting to communicate with each other on the basis of differing frames of reference, for example, find that very little, if any, of the intended information gets across in undistorted form. If they speak different languages to each other (unless both are bilingual – in which case their bilingualism defines for them their frame of reference), or operate on the basis of different cultural assumptions, the communication will at least be seriously distorted, if not completely obstructed. This principle may be diagrammed as follows:
If, for example, God simply spoke a "heavenly language" rather than a human language, operating within his own frame of reference rather than in that of his hearers, the message would not get across, since the communicator and the receptor would be operating in different frames of reference. For this reason God has chosen to operate within the linguistic frame of reference of the human receptors of his message. In his ultimate communication, however, he chose the more comprehensive total cultural frame of reference of the Hebrew people to operate in the person of Jesus Christ.
The second principle of communication theory employed by God in Christ relates to the predictability of the message. Within the linguistic frame of reference known as the English language, for example, if one says, "He winked his ______," or, "He shrugged his _______," the impact of (technically, the information value of) the word "eye" in the completed first statement, or the word "shoulder" in the second is exactly zero, since no other fillers of these blanks are allowable and, therefore, each is absolutely predictable in these contexts (frames of reference).4 If, for example, as someone says, "He winked his eye" some noise blots out the last word, nothing is lost, since "eye" is predictable in that context – the impact of that word symbol in that context is, therefore, nil.
In statements such as, "The _____ barked," or, "He smacked his ______," the predictability of the words that may fill the blanks is high but not quite 100 percent since, were a word spoken in each of the above blanks blotted out by some noise, one could not be sure whether it was a dog, a seal or a baboon that barked, or whether the latter person smacked his lips or his child. The information value, therefore, of the words which fill the blank in either of these statements is slightly higher than that of the fillers in the above paragraph, since its predictability is lower. This principle may be diagrammed thus:
Note that any movement along the above line toward, e.g., greater predictability is at the same time a movement toward a lessening of the impact of the message.
Now, with regard to God’s approach to man, the stereotyped (i.e., predictable) understanding of God will result in the completion of the following statements in highly predictable terms: "If God came to earth he would come as a ____," or, "He would associate with _____ people," or, "He would go to _____ places." The Pharisees, for example, thinking in terms of the stereotype, expected Christ to come as a king, to associate only with good people, and to go only to religiously respectable places. These were the predictable answers, and had Christ acted according to these expectations he might well have been accepted by the Pharisees. But the very predictability of his message lived in these terms would have meant that the communication impact of his life would have been only slightly above the zero level.
But note the far greater communication value of filling the above blanks with unpredictable terms – terms that did not and still do not confor to the stereotype that most people have developed with regard to God. Suppose, for example, someone said, "When God came to earth he came as s peasant," or, "God associated with prostitutes and crooked tax collectors," or, "God went to a raucous wedding feast." These statements really make an impact (even today) because they are so unpredictable, so out of line with the stereotype. They sound like headlines (which are produced with the same technique in mind). They make you perk up your ears.
The third communication principle employed by Jesus concerns the specificity of the form in which the message is presented. A communication presented in terms of the actions, attitudes and activities of real life, for example, makes a greater impact (i.e., has greater communication value) than a strictly verbal message. Even if the communication be verbal, a greater impact is made by specific, detailed descriptions of real life, or even illustrative parables describing true-to-life events than by generalizations or abstract propositions concerning those events.5 For this reason Jesus, living truly among men and teaching in terms of life-specific parables and miracles, communicated infinitely more to us concerning God than would all of the theological abstractions, no matter how true, that could be developed concerning God’s interest in man. Christ not only taught truth, he presented it in such a way that it came across to his hearers and observers with impact. The fact that the life of Christ has been recorded and transmitted to us in biographical, casebook fashion rather than in abstract theological textbook fashion males available to us even at this distance in time a large degree of that communicational impact of his life and teaching in first century Palestine.
The fourth of these principles of communication theory relates primarily to the manner in which the receptor is made aware of the message. In our society we are constantly beseiged by predigested information, often presented in "one-wav conversations" such as lectures, books and even so-called discussions. Much of the effect of all of this is to rob us of the opportunity of discovery. We are very privileged to read and hear of the discoveries of others, but often we have not been allowed to really discover much on our own. It is in the process of discovery, rather than in the simple hearing of the report of someone else’s discovery presented in predigested form, that the deepest, most abiding kind of learning takes place. It is for this reason, I am sure, that Clod’s written Word is presented to us in experience-oriented casebook fashion rather than as a predigested theology textbook.
This type of discovery-oriented learning is the kind that provides the basis for the educational systems of a majority of the world’s cultures. Education, for example, that makes much use of such things as proverbs, fables, parables and similar types of stylized recountings of the experience and accumulated wisdom of the community tends to be discovery-oriented. This kind of educational process is dependent upon the learner deducing (discovering) what in the materials presented is of value to him and in what way it may be applicable to his life.
Jesus, working within a society whose educational system was learner- and discovery-oriented in this sense, taught from within this framework by means of living and verbal example. He employed familiar forms such as the discipleship teacher-student relationship and the parable as a primary model for the presentation of his material. He waited for discovery to take place. When, for example, John the Baptist inquired from prison about whether or not Jesus was the promised Messiah (a question raised in John’s mind because Jesus did not fit the stereotype), the Master did not provide a predigested yes or no answer but, rather, told the messenger to simply report to John the "things you have seen and heard. . ." (Lk. 7:22), so that John could make his own discovery of the truth. Even at his trial before Pilate, Jesus answered the question, "Are you the Ding of the Jews?" by a return question – a question designed to probe and challenge Pilate to discovery. Jesus did not simply give an answer based on the information to be taught. Ire did not deny Pilate the opportunity of really confronting his own question and of possibly discovering real truth in the process.
Jesus chose to operate in the cultural frame of reference of his hearers. He chose to become intelligible as a believable human being within their cultural context, rather than demanding that in some way they become a part of his frame of reference in order to receive his communication. The missionary seeking to truly communicate Christ will find that Jesus’ way of choosing to operate within the cultural frame of reference of his hearers is a much ore enlightened method of effective communication than the alternative approach employed by the Judaizers and some Western mission agencies that requires the hearers to accommodate to the cultural frame of reference of the communicator.
Within that intelligible frame of reference, Jesus deliberately shunned the isolated, untouchable, nonparticipant religious expert stereotype that both the religious leaders and the people expected him to fit into. Missionaries, in allegiance to Christ’s example, must likewise resist and reject such a stereotype, or see their efforts at effective cross-cultural communication of the gospel seriously compromised.
Jesus, furthermore, presented his message in a highly specific, non-generalized, even non-theological form. The message was both lived and illustrated in very specifically life-related fashion. Jesus seldom used Scripture texts as his starting point. Ire chose to base his communication on the life and interests of his hearers rather than on statements of the theological principles that may be derived from his teachings. Missionaries must imitate our Lord’s approach by searching out, learning and employing the culturally appropriate forms of specific life-related communication available among the people to whom they are called.
Finally, our Lord encouraged and patiently waited for those around him to learn by discovery. "The kingdom is like such and such. It’s up to you to discover how the analogy applies," he seems to be saying at many points, showing a high regard for man’s ability to discover eternal truth. "Observe me, spend time with me. Now who do you think I am?" "Reach forth your hand, Thomas, and draw your own conclusion." He lived close to men, always within reach of an inquirer’s question or touch, seldom impatient except with those who knew better, always encouraging and patiently waiting for that life-transforming discovery of himself and of the truth of Clod that he sought to convey. Oh, that we might imitate him and communicate like he did!
1. See "God’s Model for Cross-Cultural Communication – the Incarnation," Evangelical Missions Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 4, Summer, 1973.
2. The term "supraculture" first called "superculture" by Wm. A. Smalley) designates the realm above and beyond and culture where the absolute God exists. Since cultural systems are relative but God is absolute it seems important to employ such a term when referring to God’s relation to culture. The fact that the Son left the supracultural realm of God and crossed the border between that realm and a cultural realm is the point being made here, since such a crossing is similar to the crossing from one culture into another.
3. See E. A. Nida, Message and Mission (Harper and Row, 1960, reprinted Wm. Carey Library, 1972) for another treatment of some of these factors. Pages 72-75 are especially relevant.
4. Note that this principle specifies unpredictability of elements within a frame of reference. That is the frame of reference remains constant (i.e., predictable). The only unpredictable thing is which item or type of item among several possible alternatives will be employed in a given part of the frame of reference. If, for example, a statement such as that which follows were made, the nonsense world would convey very little information, since it is not an allowable word in the English language frame of reference: "I saw an oquap." The little information that it does convey is related to the fact that the unfamiliar term occurs in a place in the utterance that would enable one to say, "If ‘oquap’ is definable it will be a noun," and the spelling of the strange word is such that one can say, "This is a permissible sequence of sounds in English." That is, the little information that might be attributed to the strange word comes not from the word itself but from the frame of reference determined allowabilities that it exhibits.
5. See chapter 2, "On Teaching by Parables" in R,. C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of our Lord (various editions) for an interesting older treatment of this insight.
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