by Charlie Davis
Field-based research on Venezuelan cultural presuppositions.
I grew up with the understanding that dancing was sin. In sixth grade my parents sent written permission allowing me to sit out while my physical education class learned how to square dance. The closest I came to a real dance while growing up was watching on my grandmother’s TV as the old folks vied for the pleasure of dancing with Lawrence Welk.
Fifteen years ago my wife and I began working in Venezuela, eager to see some new churches started in this predominately Catholic country. Dancing was never a question. The established evangelical church had traditions that almost precisely matched those with which I was brought up. We did, however, get more exposure. Instead of a TV set, which could be easily turned off, we heard and felt dancing in ways never before imagined as neighbors around us celebrated late into the night. Our solution was to buy ear plugs, put pillows over our ears, and turn up the white noise of the fans. Dancing was at best a nuisance, at worst a tool of the devil for promoting licentious behavior. We did not realize how little we really understood the Venezuelan cultural presuppositions that made dancing such a central part of their culture.
Birthday celebrations became part of a our search for the answer as to why so many other things were different in the Venezuelan culture. Despite initial impressions that the Venezuelans were "not that different," the longer we tried to start churches, the more we became convinced that North Americans and Venezuelans were at opposite cultural poles. Unfortunately, we lacked the necessary tools to determine in what ways and to what degree the Venezuelan culture differed from our own.
Recently, however, due to the support of our mission and our home churches, I was able to enter the Ph.D. in Intercultural Studies program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. To my delight the tools of ethnography and proper research procedures were made available, enabling me to carry out field-based research on Venezuelan cultural presuppositions.
The research was based on anthropological theories of world view, primarily that of theme and counter-theme proposed by Opler.1 The first task was to make sufficient written observations of the culture to generate primary cultural themes and counter-themes. The second task was to interview 33 Venezuelans, asking them open and indirect questions regarding those themes. To make the study more interesting and more valuable, the interviews were carried out in four groups: evangelical urban, evangelical small-town, non-evangelical urban, and non-evangelical small town. The findings demonstrated that the Venezuelan culture is vastly different from our own, and that the evangelical church founded by North American missionaries, partly because of the assumption that the Venezuelan culture was not very different, has become an isolated subculture in the small towns and simply irrelevant to many Venezuelans in urban areas.
Three themes stood out in the research: First, that Venezuela is a collective culture; second, Venezuelans will always put people before the clock; and third, sexuality is understood as primarily a biological function that should be expressed.
BELONGING, NOT INDEPENDENCE
Seen from the inside by a Venezuelan, belonging to a group is far more important than achieving independence. Venezuelans are, as Hiebert puts it, parts of a whole, not whole parts.2 This does not deny individuality, but individuality is most likely to be expressed by trying to change status in the group to which a person belongs, not by achieving independence from the group.
In 1984, a Dutch researcher named Hofstede carried out a study of the relative degree of individualism true of national employees of the Hermes corporation in 40 countries. The three most individualistic countries were the United States, (91 on a scale of 1-100), Canada, and Australia. The three least individualistic countries were Venezuela (12 on the same scale) followed by Colombia and Pakistan.3 In these countries, personalidentity is derived from the group to which a person belongs. As one Venezuelan put it, “Show me the people whom you spend time with, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Another added, “To lose touch with the family is to lose my identity.”
Belonging in the Venezuelan society is multidimensional, beginning with the family, including friends and community, and extending to the nation itself. Venezuelans often think of their country as an overgrown family. Since no family member would be expected to do a certain amount of work to earn his or her place at the dinner table, neither should Venezuelans have to do a certain amount of work to earn their share of the national resources. Poverty is not related to unemployment, but rather to poorly shared resources for which the government, not the individual, is responsible.
Those groups to which a person belongs expect recognition, loyalty, and conformity. The ever-present greetings between people who know one another are the official recognition of belonging. The golden word holding these groups together is confianza, a combination of emotional affinity and trust, demonstrated over a period of time. Members of one’s group should be trusted to be loyal and not talk behind one’s back. If a person does something out of the ordinary, however, gossip and criticism are brought into play to reinforce conformity to the community or family standards. Using Kohlberg’s analysis,4 Venezuelan collective society is an excellent example of sociocentric moral reasoning.
Sensitivity to whether or not an individual is well thought of by the group is a major determining factor in behavior, reflected in the sayings, caer bien a los demas, or quedar bien con los demas. (Literally: To fall well with others, or stay well with others; or, in other words, to create a good impression on the group.)
In the city far more effort is required to maintain the feeling of belonging because “increased spatial polarization” threatens to draw people apart.5 The groups to which each one belongs have become separated and tangential. To the Venezuelan’s credit, the city has been unable to pull apart the belief in the primacy of relationships and the need to belong. It simply makes caring for relationships somewhat more difficult, compensated, in part, by more effusiveness in the ritual greetings.
The upside of all this is that the Venezuelan is extremely sensitive to relationships. The downside is that those groups to whom a person does not belong deserve nothing, promoting racism and xenophobia.
PEOPLE, NOT THE CLOCK
Since belonging is a feeling to be nourished, being together with people is more important than when an event begins or how long it might take. Punctuality and planning do take place, of course, as in any modern society, but conformity to these values only occurs when to do otherwise is penalized.
As the feeling of belonging is nourished by being together, being together in turn gives rise to feelings of excitement, warmth, and contentment. As one Venezuelan put it, “To be a part of a group produces a feeling of well being because of the support and cooperation. This is part of being human. When people arrive home they simply feel good. Not only do they feel good about being part of that group or any group, they also feel pride in being part of a group of known people.”
Togetherness is celebrated primarily by talking, because talking is the way to express one’s present sense of identity, or being, in relation to others.6 Those events that allow for spontaneous expressions of togetherness such as talking and dancing are the best.
Activities that demand linear time scheduling and in which people are forced into a prearranged plan are considered less genuine because they do not allow for spontaneous expressions of collective identity.
The best example of this kind of activity is the birthday party. Although a specific time is usually announced for the beginning of such an activity, the party really only begins when everyone arrives,usually from one to two hours after the stated time. Since the party starts when everyone arrives, to arrive late really means later than everyone else. But if Venezuelans know who is going (and why would they want to go to a party where they didn’t know the others?) then they also know when those people are going to arrive. The birthday party’s culminating moment of collective solidarity occurs when the birthday song is sung and the cake is cut. To miss that moment is to be worthy of criticism. Arriving only a few minutes before, however, even though it might be hours after the party started and even longer since it was announced to begin, is to arrive on time. The reason is simple: Relationships with the people and maintaining collective solidarity are important, linear time is not.
In the interviews it became evident that the city, far from defeating this value by promoting reliance on the clock, creates, instead, a reaction to linear time in which the city dweller is more likely to be spontaneous and unplanned about his private activities, precisely because the city forces him or her to conform to certain time restrictions in public life.
The positive feature of this is that people take first place. On the negative side, that which requires efficiency or production almost always suffers. In contrast to North American society, however, which is characterized by “technological optimism and literary despair”  Venezuelans are to be commended for having resisted the destructive sweep of individualism upon which technological optimism thrives. They may provide an example for a North American church that often seems more driven by linear time than by the value of relationships.
SEX PRIMARILY BIOLOGICAL
To those of us raised with the idea that sexuality is vaguely bad, fraught with the possibility of guilt, and best left hidden, to think of sexuality as primarily a nonshameful biological function requires several mental turns. To the Venezuelan, sexuality is on the same level as eating, drinking, or responding to the cold by putting on warm clothes. Since the family is, however, the most basic unity of collective solidarity, the harmful effects of a totally unrestricted sexuality have traditionally been controlled by means of a family and community chaperon system.
These values are colorfully reflected in the saying, Cuidate tu novilla, porque voy a soltar mi torete. (Look after your heifer, because I am going to release my bull calf.) The animal metaphor is appropriate to a belief that sexuality is primarily a biological function, and implies that outside forces are responsible for controlling natural sexual impulses. Just as the bull must be fenced away from the heifers, so the sociocentric chaperon system is responsible to keep a young couple apart. If a boy and girl are allowed to be together without a chaperon, Venezuelans expect sexual impulses to naturally predominate.
Sexual attraction is usually considered the beginning of a new relationship where belonging might arise, since it occurs at the same emotional and intuitive level at which the need for belonging operates. In the traditional chaperon system, sexual attraction is controlled by external limits provided by the family and held in place by the community. This leads, theoretically, to marriage, family, and a respected place in the collective. When the chaperon system breaks down, however, both men and women are susceptible to the use of sexuality as a means of gaining power and domination within the collective.
Sexual expressiveness within Venezuelan society reveals at least three sets of moral values: First, repression is bad; the body is good. Second, homosexuality is bad; having more than one woman is good. Third, collective shame is bad; maintaining appearances is good. These values are reflected in the following saying, reported by a Venezuelan magazine, in which a husband reveals what he says to his wife when she challenges his unfaithfulness: Tu eres la catedral, pero hay muchas iglesias. (You are the cathedral,but there are many churches.) While worshiping in the cathedral is best, certainly no one would expect a man not to worship just because he only had a smaller church building available. By the same token, no one would expect a man not to have sexual relations just because his wife was temporarily unavailable.
The city, because of its size and the increased segregation of the collectives to which Venezuelans belong, eliminates the external social controls, allowing sexual expressiveness to be the norm. No chaperon system can cope with the multitude of opportunities afforded for sexual expressiveness in the city. A sociocentric control system does not function in the city, but few Venezuelans have been encouraged to develop principles that would govern their sexual behavior when lacking the external controls.
IMPLICATIONS FOR STARTING CHURCHES
Several implications for the task of starting churches in Venezuela arise from this information. Having looked at the culture from an insider’s point of view, it remains to critically examine each of these cultural presuppositions from a biblical point of view: (1) opposing those which are contrary to clear biblical guidelines; (2) adopting those that are biblical, and (3) using those that are neutral.
First, the value of collective identity should not be overlooked in Latin America. The Venezuelan sense of group identity is probably much closer to what Paul described in Romans and Ephesians as a spiritual body than churches that are really only a number of individuals who have decided (for individual reasons) to gather at the same time in the same place on Sunday morning for worship without necessarily celebrating relationship.
Missionaries must be willing to create new church patterns that promote relationships rather than simple attendance at church programs. In addition, the church has much to gain by emphasizing the universal aspect of belonging to the grand collective known as the Kingdom of God. Denominationalism may be understood as providing variety in an individualistic society; in a collective society it simply creates confusion and a lack of confidence.
Second, missionaries must try to become accepted in the Venezuelan collectives that already exist, rather than expecting Venezuelans to want to join them in a new collective. One of the only ways for missionaries to do this is through employment, such as teaching English, where they spend enough time with Venezuelans in their collective for natural emotional affinity to arise with some.
Third, while mining the positive aspects of a collective culture, the Venezuelan church must constantly guard against legalism, a natural result of sociocentric reasoning. Because of the desire to be appreciated and esteemed by those in one’s group, the Venezuelan will intuitively grasp what pleases or displeases the others. If, for instance, the missionary does not dance, drink, or go to movies, these will quickly become the standards for Christian behavior, even if the missionary personally may not think there is anything wrong with any of them in moderation.
Fourth, instead of creating churches isolated from Venezuelan society because of a refusal to engage in rituals of collective identity, the church must learn to build bridges into the society by which Christians can participate in these rituals in Christian ways, rather than avoiding them altogether. The Venezuelan must learn how to be “in the world” while not “of the world,” otherwise his or her witness will become increasingly irrelevant to friends and family.
Fifth, evangelistic methods and meetings of the church would do well to minimize planning and maximize spontaneity. Planned evangelistic Bible studies are probably not going to be as effective as taking advantage of the natural and spontaneous events of collective life to share what Christ is doing in one’s own life in the present. Furthermore, if the church insists on punctuality for the spiritual part of its activities, it is, inadvertently, allowing people to identify being apart of church as part of their public life, without necessarily having any impact on their private lives. The real question here is whether the church ought to be more like a birthday party, or like going to work. In the first, time does not matter; people do. In the second, linear time and accomplishing set tasks take precedence.
Sixth, evangelistic methods and meetings of the church should actively promote appreciation for sexuality within marriage and provide healthy outlets for sexual energy for the unmarried. Principles that govern sexual behavior must be taught from the biblical basis that God created the body, that the body is good, and that we must use it responsibly to achieve the best that God has for us. Sexual purity is a worthy goal for married and unmarried alike, and should replace the single standard of virginity before marriage. These principles will be far more effective than relying on sociocentric patterns held in place by the church.
SO, WHAT ABOUT DANCING?
Venezuelans love to dance for several reasons the church need not reject. Dancing is one of the primary cultural ways of expressing collective identity. In contrast to the preferred North American entertainment of watching a video in which everyone is separated from the other, the music, rhythm, and motion of the dance are a uniting activity. Birthday parties or weddings are rarely complete without dancing because these events are primarily rituals of collective solidarity.
They also love to dance because there are no parameters to the dance. Dances last as long as there are people who want to dance. Spontaneity and the feelings of belonging, excitement, warmth, and contentment permeate collective dances. Furthermore, the same dance that is a ritual of collective solidarity and a worthy event within the values of event time is also a means of sexual expression. It may be used as a healthy outlet for sexual energy, or as a means of seduction and sensual expressiveness.
In discussing this with a new believer, I asked him how he felt about dancing now that he had become a Christian. He said, “Oh, that’s easy. I don’t dance those dances which cross the line.” Intrigued, I asked, “What line?” To which he answered, “The line between dancing which is acceptable and dancing which is not.” I persisted, “But how do you know the difference?” “No problem,” he answered. “Everybody knows which dances are used to seduce someone.” Then he listed several dances by name. The Holy Spirit had made it clear to this new believer that he should modify his behavior, but he apparently did not totally prohibit dancing.
This response to dancing is biblical, but it may not fit the North American evangelical presuppositions about Christian behavior. At this point, missionaries must give the Venezuelans freedom to follow the Holy Spirit in the light of Scripture. To do otherwise is to perpetuate colonialism. But neither should the Venezuelan church accept its own cultural presuppositions uncritically. All need to be examined in the light of the Bible by the Venezuelan people themselves. Venezuelan Christians have both the right and the duty to preserve what is good in their culture, while finding biblical ways to correct the defects. May God give them the grace and freedom to do so.
1. Opler, Morris. 1945. “Themes as dynamic forces in culture.” American Journal of Sociology 3: 198-206.
2. Hiebert, Paul G. 1991. Lectures presented in class on folk religions. Spring Term, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
3. Hofstede, Geert. 1984. Culture’s consequences, international differences in work-related values. Abridged edition. Beverly Hills, Cal.: Sage Publications, 158.
4. Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1975. The cognitive-developmental approach to moral education. Phi Delta Kappan, June, 670-678.
5. Wirth, Louis. 1938-9. “Urbanism as a way of life.” American Journal of Sociology 45: 743-55.
6. Rivera, Julius. 1978. “World View.” Chap. 1 in Latin America: A sociocultural interpretation. University of Texas at ElPaso, New York: Irvington Publishers, 2.
7. Newbigin, Lesslie. 1991. Truth to tell: The gospel as public truth. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, quoting from Carver Yu, 19.
Charlie Davis serves with The Evangelical Alliance Mission in Caracas, Venezuela. He works with leadership training in new churches. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois (Ph.D.).
EMQ, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 50-57. Copyright © 1997 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.