Reviews on Resources for Biblical and Theological Studies


Written By: Paulson Pulikottil - Jul• 25•08

Jacob A. Loewen, The Bible in Cross-Cultural Perspective(Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2000)
This book has come from a veteran missionary and Bible translator who is also a trained anthropologist. His experience as translation consultant of the Bible Society in Africa and Latin America and his anthropological insights form the keel of this work. In the author’s own words, “This book is about discovering more of the message of the Bible than we see through the eyes of our own culture.” (p. 3).
This book has come from a veteran missionary and Bible translator who is also a trained anthropologist. His experience as translation consultant of the Bible Society in Africa and Latin America and his anthropological insights form the keel of this work. In the author’s own words, “This book is about discovering more of the message of the Bible than we see through the eyes of our own culture.” (p. 3). Here “our own culture” definitely means the Western culture. The book addresses three groups of people all situated in the West. First of all, Loewen, brought up as a Mennonite first of challenges the views of his own and of his communities. Secondly, he addresses the Western Christians in general and thirdly those western missionaries who serve in non-Western contexts.
The book is on the various cross-cultural perspectives on the Bible, that he has gathered through a lifetime of involvement with people of various cultural, religious and social background. It is presented in five parts: 1. The Bible in Cross-Cultural Perspectives, 2. The Universe: Physical and Metaphysical, 3. God and the Sacred, 4. The Significance of Names, 5. Some Implications of Cross Cultural Perspective. The Appendices contain a section on the various Pseudepigraphical books and another on God’s Names in European Translations besides the usual indices on authors, subject and scriptural references. The book also has a short biography of the author who turns 100 years this year (2002)!
It seems that Loewen is trying to prove a proposition in three parts. First of all, he want to assert that people hold differing worldviews; secondly, he want to correct the notion that the western world views are to be equated with Biblical worldviews, the latter are not constant, they vary. He sketches the development of biblical worldviews on a number of topics: After Life, Concept of God; Prophecies; Exorcism; Marriage etc. A third proposition is that the non-Western pre-scientific worldviews are closer to that of the Bible than the Western Christian worldviews.
The style is anecdotal and autobiographical. The author uses stories from his own experience among the Empera’s, Waunas and the Chalupis to illustrate his point. He also brings a wealth of autobiographical information. He tells us how his western, Mennonite, Missionary worldviews was in conflict with that of the people whom he served. This makes the book a insightful reading. An extensive bibliography is a definite contribution. An annotated list and bibliography of the Intertestamental literature is also wealth.

Loewen offers a diachronic perspective on a number of biblical themes. For example, he tells us how Israel’s concept of God from a tribal God to a cosmic monotheistic God developed. He traces the question of after life from the early traditions in the Old Testament through the Intertestamental period to the New Testament. He also discusses the idea of the gender of God that different cultures have and the reason for the dominant male image that the Bible holds. There are some cultures that can not conceive God as male. For him gender is only a metaphor. He also discusses (it takes a major place) the issues of spirits, demon possession and exorcism. He finds that the African worldviews on this issue is somewhere between that of the Western world views and that of the Bible but closer to the biblical side. Extensive tables that compare various aspects of these three worldviews are very valuable (see chapters 11 and 12). The last part of the book (Part V) titled “Focus on the West” is important. Here he offers a critique of the western Christian culture, which thinks it is biblical. He thinks that what the Christian West worship a tribal God (in contrast to a universal God) made up of an unholy trinity of gods of wealth, of materialism and technology. In Chapter 17, he has presented a diachronic view on marriage in the Bible and marriage customs of various groups. He also discusses the problems of forcing western Christian concept of monogamous marriage poses to various cultures particularly the Chalupis. Though he discusses the various (sometimes contradicting) views of marriage in the Bible, he does not tell us where does the monogamous marriage evolve; does it not have a biblical basis or not. He also offers a critique of western materialistic and scientific worldview that has less and less room for supernatural. God is reduced to a God of gaps so also demon possession and exorcism. He evaluates two famous models (the Wimber-White model and the Peck model) on demon possession and highlights their inadequacy. He also finds that some scientific discoveries point towards the spiritual and supernatural.
This book was not possible a century ago. Hundred years ago the missionaries went out from Europe and North America wrote about how pagan and non-Christian were the people they served among. Now, there is a drastic turn around in the missionary attitude. Missionaries are discovering that the non-Western cultures have something to contribute to the West. This book is an example of this new genre. Missionaries are more and more appreciative of non-western cultures and also discover the inadequacy of the Western cultures. This book is documentary evidence of this trend.
He suggests that we need to translate the biblical worldviews to the various cultures instead of imposing on them the Western World views, which are not Biblical, worldviews either. Just as the biblical view of a flat earth was accommodated in the Western scientific worldview, other models could be translated if we read Bible cross culturally. To quote the author: “Western Christians have long since translated the biblical categories of flat earth with firmament dome over it into a globe with atmosphere and outer space, in keeping with our modern worldview. We no longer question the fact that we do so, even though at one time this process seemed unthinkable to Christians. It is that continued process of translation that I am seeking in another domain of divine revelation.” (p. 239).
This book is full of discoveries and is an eye opener on many issues. However, you would find that the comment by Paul Hiebert (another missionary and a celebrated Anthropologist) on the blurb is right. He says, “Not all agree with Dr. Loewen’s conclusions, nor does he expects us to, but the questions he raises are ones we are increasingly forced to raise in the era of a global church.” There are a number of points where one would find it difficult to swallow what Loewen offers. Many Christian readers will find his statement that, “Having heard testimony after testimony of African communication between the living and the dead and knowing that the Bible recounts an appearance of dead Samuel to King Saul (1 Sam 28:7-14), I can no longer discount messages from the dead.” (Page 48).
Does the fact that some of the worldviews are closer to that of the Bible at some stage of its development mean that they are valid? Where is the place of superstition and are cultures free from deceptive elements.
Though the diachronic perspectives offered are useful, the philosophical presupposition behind them is objectionable. Loewen follows Biblical scholars of the 19th century who advocated a linear evolutionary schema for the development of various concepts in the Bible. Biblical scholarship does not believe that biblical theology follows such a neat linear development. Also in arguing that differing worldviews that existed at different points in time in the biblical world we should also admit that there is the principle of abrogation. That is, some worldviews came into existence by abrogating earlier ones and thus invalidated them. So they all does not become valid worldviews but testify how the worldviews were developed.
I also find the argument that the Western worldview is material, scientific and has no place for the spiritual (demons, evil spirits etc) is contrary to evidence. The belief in a spiritual world is universal and superstitious beliefs are found in every culture. Western folklore is full of such beliefs. How does one account for the occult, spiritism and other practices in the West? If the West was a purely material then how do we explain the witches? To what realm do we ascribe beliefs in trolls and fairies in Western imagination?
At the popular level there is such beliefs, and these are universal, but the West that the missionaries want to project to the rest of the world is combed clean of such things. This is not the problem of the West in general but that of the Western Christians were brought up on Christian rationalism which had no place for miracles, exorcism, evil spirits etc contrary to their own contexts. Loewen mind that operates in such bipolar categories of West and non-West is outdated.
However, this book is a valuable contribution to missiology. Anyone, particularly in the Western world who takes up an assignment overseas should read this book. It definitely will serve as a textbook in missionary anthropology and can be of also use as a tertiary source book for teaching biblical themes.