Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

When East meets West

Written by: on May 7, 2015

Asian and Western cultures are worlds apart. Many of the issues that faced Asian Christians are simply non-existent for the Western believer. For example, one of the issues that South Koreans face once they have chosen to follow Jesus Christ is the question of ancestral worship. Each year, families throughout the country visit the graves of their deceased family members, bringing food to the dead, and bow in reverence before their memorial. Should Christians join together in this traditional family practice of worshipping dead ancestors, or should they step away? What is God’s will for our Asian brothers and sisters?

And what about the Asian cultural practice of showing hospitality to work colleagues? Up and down the South Korean peninsula, it is expected that one should show due hospitality to one’s business guests by taking them out to drink alcohol, which really means staying out very and becoming inebriated. For many Christians, engaging in this cultural expectation causes distress. They know that refusing to join in for the sake of one’s conscience will result in being disadvantaged at work.

As Chan’s well explains, Asian culture and Western culture are just so different. Ancestral piety, the honour / shame issue, the importance of the family and its order, are just some of the important cultural characteristics of Asian society, and Chan is to be commended for his attempt in addressing and marrying them to wider theology. For example, he believes that it is possible to better understand the hierarchy within the Trinity through the lens of order in Asian families. [1] However, although this theological idea might seem attractive to some, one needs to appreciate that the importance of order in Asian families is not without its difficulties. In South Korea, many women are oppressed by men, both in their patriarchal marriages and in their workplaces. They are forced to perform tasks they don’t wish to do, without receiving due appreciation or love in return. In South Korea at least, the top-down concept of power is often abused, both at home and at work. And sadly, even in the Church.

With regards to Chan’s attempt to provide a theological framework for ancestral worship, that is, understanding Christ as our great high priest and ‘greatest ancestor’, [2] this still doesn’t assist the Asian Christian with the dilemma of whether he or she should participate in the practice in the first place. After all, when they bow down to their deceased ancestor, they are worshipping someone who is not God. How does organising theology help here?

I think Chan does an excellent job of explaining Asian cultural issues whilst offering new frameworks of theology. As he rightly states, “The most urgent question for Christians is not theism vs. atheism or agnosticism but how to make sense of the Christian understanding of God in contexts filled with a plethora of vastly different conceptions of deity.” [3]

As Chan recognises, Asian Christians need theological help in marrying their cultural identity with their Christian faith. But Western Christians need to engage “from the ground up.” That is, Western theology needs to gain its perspectives from stepping inside Asia’s local church communities, rather than merely imposing an outside perspective. May God, the author of Western and Asian peoples, give us wisdom for the theological challenges that lie before us.

[1] Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), 65-8

[2] Chan, ibid., 43, 116

[3] Chan, ibid., 48

About the Author

Liz Linssen

9 responses to “When East meets West”

  1. Liz,

    Thanks for your post. I was looking forward to your take on this week’s reading since you have lived in an Eastern culture for so many years.

    Yes, there are so many questions about what cultural practices Christians follow and which are set aside. As I am studying Native-American spirituality, culture, and leadership, I wonder some of the same things that you have surfaced in your post. Perhaps each individual needs to answer these practices in their own way. Perhaps there is not one “right” way for all. For example, what about Native drumming in worship services? Is this acceptable or unacceptable? What about smoking from the Native pipe for various ceremonies? Is this acceptable or unacceptable in Christian worship? Is there one answer to these questions? I doubt it. Perhaps it is the place of the Holy Spirit to show each one what is and is not acceptable. What do you think?

    • Liz Linssen says:

      Hi Bill
      Thank you so much for your feedback. No doubt, the same cultural questions do rise within your own research! I love the examples you gave. These are nitty-gritty ‘real’ life issues for people from other cultures. But isn’t it interesting? We cannot but help interpret the Bible using our Western lens. I personally think we should give room for God to guide and convict individuals of anything that might not be honouring to Him. After all, who are we to impose our Western church cultural thinking into Eastern or Native American cultures? God is able to reveal His will to various cultures. He knows how best to lead us on the road to sanctification.
      Quite a few people in my church smoke. Do I condemn? No, I don’t. If it is wrong for people to smoke, God is able to show them. It’s a grey area with more important issues that need addressing first. Thank you for your comments Bill!

  2. Liz!
    I so appreciate and welcome your insights. You have taken us into the middle space where the grassroots theology has to live itself out. There is something compelling if a honor shame culture is lived out as intended. But we are also reminded that indeed sin touches everything and a honor shame culture is just as likely to be self-serving. It can have as its end an inability to “see” the individual as one of worth.

    So after reading your post and the dilemmas facing your Korean brothers and sisters would Chan’s recognition of grassroots theology as something coming forth from within the people bring about a new orientation. There seems in some sense tension within a hierarchial familial standard (which within the Trinity is something that we definitely have to be careful with) as it might be applied within the Asian church (specifically Korea) and the grassroots model where everyone is in relation as a brother and sister? How might our theology come forth if we were to collectively wrestle with the cultural norm? No answers just wondering ….

    Thank you Liz for your wisdom!

    • Liz Linssen says:

      Hi Carol
      Thank you so much for your feedback. Yes, I do believe it’s important to allow theology to be formed from the ground up. But I don’t think it wise to leave out advice from other cultural perspectives.
      What could work, say in South Korea, would be Korean pastors / theologians coming together in discussion, together with a few non-Koreans assisting discussions. It would likely take time to formulate a good theology for asian contexts, but it would be a good way forward. These matters need to be addressed, for, as you correctly, say, sin touches everything. Thank you Carol.

  3. Deve Persad says:

    I was looking forward to your take on this book, Liz. Your personal experience obviously provides a great filter for our collective learning. It was intriguing to read of the need to develop a practical outworking of the theological truths of the Trinity – as a relational community. Your insight, however gives me pause: ” In South Korea, many women are oppressed by men, both in their patriarchal marriages and in their workplaces.” That was my understanding as well from the outside looking in. So my question, based on your experiences – how has or does the church help to change this view of women as a reflection of Trinitarian theology?

    • Liz Linssen says:

      Hi Deve
      Thanks so much for your feedback.
      Well, in answer to your question, from my limited perspective, the church does not do enough to address cultural issues that contradict Scripture. There is a strong hierarchical structure within the church throughout Korea, which is a reflection of hierarchy in society. So for example, pastors can all too easily be revered and sought for answers in place of God. Also, within their language, everyone is given a title, whether it’s ‘Mother, Father, sister, lead pastor, senior pastor, teacher, professor’ and so on. As soon as you meet someone new, they’ll ask questions to work out your place in life. I saw this hierarchical system so much in the Korean church. It’s rooted out of pride, essentially.
      As for the view of women and Trinitarian theology. Well, men are certainly more revered in Korea. Sons are favoured over daughters; eldest sons received the inheritance like OT times; sons are considered most important in families (generally speaking). And of course, this is even more so in China, where the ‘one-child-rule’ in is force. There is a long way to go Deve.

  4. John Woodward says:

    Liz, I too was interested to hear your take on this book from your experiences. I just finished a first volume of global theology series by Veli-Matti Karkkainen, called “Christ and Reconciliation (A Constructive Christian Theology for a Pluralistic World” who spent a number of years teaching theology in Far East. He had a great grasp on Asian religions and used them to dialogue with Christian theology. I am finding through these readings that my knowledge of religions from Far East is very limited. So, your insights were helpful, bringing to light some of the more challenging issues that people have to face as they attempt to bring their Christianity into their culture (i.e. relationships, shame, etc.). As you indicate, it isn’t always so black and white, that even positive aspects of a culture can be taken to extremes, that make what might be something adaptable to Christianity to become detrimental to church life. The question then becomes, how hard is it to negotiate these waters? Do you think contextual theology is truly possible, or will there be a process of give and take in any culture that Christianity enters into? And finally, what role then does the missionary play in these negotiations? (Ok, big questions…!) Thanks Liz for giving us a deeper perspective on this book!

    • Liz Linssen says:

      Hi John
      Gosh, lots to think about isn’t there? Thank you for your kind feedback.
      I’ve seen, so many times, white foreigners move to Korea and take great offence over every day cultural differences, without realising just how different the culture really is. For example, it’s normal to be asked one’s age as soon as you meet someone new. Why? Because they need to know how to speak to you, using the higher or lower grammar.
      In Korea, there is no concept of personal space, and so when you’re out and about, people will push into you, jump queue, without thinking twice about it. Westerners, of course, take great offence at such things.
      So for missionaries to come, the first thing is watch and learn. Learn the culture. Learn the differences. Understand the Korean heart and mind (same for any asian experience), before imposing your own thinking and opinions. I think missionaries should just spent the first year learning the culture, making friendships, and learning the language. That’s it.
      I do think contextual theology is possible, but it takes time. And those who are trained in cross-cultural teaching would be best to navigate such waters, in partnership with the host culture.
      Thank you John! Have a blessed week.

  5. Michael Badriaki says:

    Liz lovely job on your post. I can relate to your thoughts from my cultural background. In Uganda we have a large Asian population and most of my friends from japan, China, India e.t.c have always talked about how certain cultural practice in Uganda are similar to certain one’s in their cultures. For example the “ancestral worship” is a familiar one.
    I believe that the global church needs to do more about partnering together in the gospel to listen for what the Spirit of God is doing with communities in order to draw conclusion from how God work in various cultural contexts and what He is saying.

    Thank you

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