Kar Yong Lim
Seminari Theoloji Malaysia
eep in the rainforest of Malaysia is the small settlement of a native tribe with a population of a few hundred. Access to this remote village is by way of a two-hour motorized boat ride upstream on the river from the nearest town, followed by another two- to three-hour hike through the dense jungle. When foreign missionaries arrived and converted this village to Christianity, they built a church according to Western architecture, with a pulpit and pews. As a result, this community no longer sits cross-legged on the floor, which was their usual custom when they gathered. The traditional musical instruments of sape’
, and sompoton
were replaced with guitars, drums, and keyboards. The people were told that many of their cultural beliefs, practices, and symbols were incompatible with the teaching of the Bible and needed to be abandoned.1
It is not uncommon for many Asians to encounter such an experience. This is not to downplay the enormous contribution by Western missionaries—far from it. I strongly believe that they did what they knew best and that there was no ill intention on their part to set aside Asian heritage and tradition in their pedagogical approaches to bringing the gospel to Asia. I highlighted this experience to showcase that in much of the history of interpretation of the NT, Christians have brought their Western cultural assumptions and biases to the reading of the Scripture, and this was spread to other parts of the non-Western world.2
As a result, much of the life of the Asian church is reflective of the Western missionary movement’s culture. This can be seen in the liturgy we observe, the architectural design of the churches we build, and the hymns we sing. Because the nature of the gospel as presented by some of these Western missionaries seemed alien to local culture, I, a Christian of Chinese descent living in a Muslim-majority Malaysia, grew up hearing many of my kinfolk describing Christianity as a xi yang jiao
(Western religion). When someone of Chinese descent became a Christian, a common reaction was “One more Christian, one fewer Chinese.”
It is not surprising that after two millennia, few people read the NT through an Asian lens. As the church’s geographic center of gravity begins to shift from the West to the Majority World in the last two decades, the face of Christianity has also begun to change. In recent years, there has been greater emphasis on the need for constructing an authentic Asian theology.3
This is certainly laudable, but much less work has been done in the field of NT studies from an Asian perspective. However, in recent years, there is a growing awareness leading to some encouraging efforts being carried out in reading Scriptures from an honor-shame perspective, which closely resembles Asian culture, and from an interdisciplinary approach, thereby offering fresh insights in reading the text.4
While this is
certainly a welcome change, most of these works are written by Western scholars who have some exposure to Asian culture, with very few contributions by Asian scholars. In light of this, this volume attempts to fill the lacuna in current NT scholarship.
In this chapter, I aim to demonstrate how the NT can be profitably read with a broader lens by considering some of the Asian cultural norms, with examples primarily drawn from Malaysia, a context with which I am more familiar. In biblical interpretation, the first key to hear and understand the NT is to consider what its authors’ intended meaning was and how its first audiences understood it. To do so, the historical, social, and cultural contexts of the NT era are explored. At the same time, it has also been widely acknowledged that ancient Mediterranean societies have similar cultural characteristics with Asian cultures. By embarking on an Asian reading of the NT, we are taking advantage of Asian cultures and traditions that we are broadly familiar with that resemble some of the ancient cultures of the biblical world. In so doing, I hope to discover key ideas and messages that are often overlooked by Western interpreters in the reading and teaching of the Scripture in our own context. I will also raise a number of questions for further reflection on how the message of the NT could possibly speak meaningfully and powerfully to our context.
Three Cultural Paradigms Affecting Our Understanding of the Bible
In cultural anthropology, there is a tendency to categorize different cultures into three major paradigms: power-fear, honor-shame, and innocence-guilt worldviews. Each of these paradigms explains how behavior is governed with respect to the laws of the land, business and social etiquettes, and relationships in family and community with the aim of maintaining social order.
In a power-fear society, control is often kept by the fear of retribution and focuses on dominance by the person in authority. This can be seen in cultures or nations where power is concentrated on one figure of authority, such as an absolute monarch, a dictator, or a leader of a tribe. Those being ruled are expected to obey the directives of the leader without questioning, and failure to do so often leads to severe punishment not only of the individuals but also of their immediate and extended families. North Korea is an example of a country that is still ruled by a power-fear paradigm. The paradigm can also be seen in many animistic cultures, where the fear of the spirits and the supernatural world found in the habitat or natural surroundings often governs cultural practices and behaviors. According to this worldview, the universe is a place filled with gods, demons, and spirits of the ancestors. In this culture, the priests, witch doctors, or shamans wield control over the people by using fear. In order that all can live in peace with these unseen powers, the people are required to live quietly or appease these powers through some form of sacrifices or rituals.
In an honor-shame society, control is maintained by the inculcation of shame in the wrongful behavior of a person who does not conform to the norms of the society.5
Most cultures that operate from this paradigm are collectivist in nature. In this respect, seeking the honor of the community and protecting or restoring the honor of the tribe, family, or clan is far more important than an individual’s actions. If shame is caused to a community by outsiders and cannot be rectified, revenge may result in order to restore the honor of a family and tribe, and this may include killing. If any behavior of an individual brings shame to the tribe, the tribe may react by punishing the individual, including ostracizing or killing the offender and the immediate family, to restore the honor of the tribe. This is particularly true in an Islamic context, where apostasy is seen as a crime and is punishable. A Muslim who converts to another religion is often ostracized from the family and community, and some are killed. The first-century world operated on an honor-shame paradigm—not too different from many parts of Asia today.
In an innocence-guilt culture, the means of control is by creating or reinforcing the feeling of guilt and the expectation of punishment for wrongful behaviors based on a set of laws or regulations. In this culture, regulating an individual’s conscience, maintaining justice, and upholding law and order are crucial in ensuring social order. The fundamental belief is in right versus wrong, justice versus injustice, and order versus crime. This yardstick is used to measure the cultural norms and behaviors. If one is guilty, one must pay for one’s crime by receiving some form of punishment that is commensurate with the degree of wrongdoing. The Western world operates according to this paradigm.
These three worldviews affect the way we understand theology and the way we read the Scripture. For example, this can be seen in how we present our understanding of sin. In the innocence-guilt paradigm, when people sin, their conscience kicks in, and they are now aware of their fallen nature. Therefore, they need redemption from their sin. This is how Western Christian theology presents the fall of humanity in the garden of Eden based on Genesis 3. When humanity broke God’s law, they were in a position of guilt. Yet we also read that in Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve sinned, they immediately hid themselves from God. They were ashamed. They could no longer honor God with their shame. When humanity broke their relationship with God, they were in a position of shame. We can also see that Adam and Eve were afraid of God when they hid from him. When humanity broke God’s trust, they were in a position of fear. In other words, we see how these three worldviews operate in Genesis 3, and yet the Western reading based on the innocence-guilt paradigm remains the dominant reading.
Furthermore, theological concepts of justice, righteousness, condemnation, sin, forgiveness, and heaven and hell are central in the thinking of the innocence-guilt worldview because this is the language that appeals to those who operate within this culture. Much of this language and understanding are rooted in legal or forensic language.
One way in which the Evangelicals present the gospel representative of this worldview is the popular use of “The Four Spiritual Laws” written by Bill Bright of Cru (formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ).6
The first spiritual law is that God loves us and offers a wonderful plan for us. Second, we are sinful and separated from God. We are sinners, we are guilty, and God’s punishment for sin is death. Third, God loves us by sending his son, Jesus, to die for us. Finally, we must individually accept Jesus as Savior; only then can we escape God’s wrath. This dominant perspective subsequently affects and governs the way we read and understand the NT and is typical of Western Christianity and even Asian Christianity at large.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with the innocence-guilt reading, the other readings, particularly the honor-shame perspective, have not been fully explored. The remainder of this chapter aims to draw insights from the Asian honor-shame perspective and bring them into helpful conversation regarding how we could read and understand the NT.
Sociocultural Realities of Asia and the NT
Asia is vast, and every country on this continent has its own distinctive cultures, traditions, and religious practices. For example, South Korea and Japan lean toward monoethnic and monocultural society, whereas Malaysia is religiously, culturally, and ethnically diverse with about one hundred different ethnic groups. In terms of religious beliefs, India is Hindu majority, Thailand is Buddhist majority, and Indonesia is Muslim majority. There is no single, well-defined Asian culture and tradition, but there are common traits. Asian culture particularly stresses past orientation, where tradition and beliefs are respected; social relationships, where collectivism is commonly practiced; and relational hierarchy, where respect for elders is accorded and harmony with others is highly valued. All these common traits shape the honor-shame culture that often governs the identity and behavior of communities and individuals. This Asian social environment of honor and shame is not too far removed from the world of the Bible; it has deep affinities with the biblical world. Because of this, Asian Christians are probably better positioned to appreciate the corporate and relational nature of...