Laura’s Underwear Theory of Cultural Adaptation

I am developing a theory called “Laura’s Underwear Theory of Cultural Adaptation.”  It measures the degree of a person’s cultural adaptation based on where that person buys his or her underwear.  My theory has grown from observing U.S. missionaries loading up on Hanes at home, and my expat Colombian friends stocking up on Colombian underwear during visits here.  There must be something about underwear that is just very primal, embedded in the deepest layers of our cultural values and comfort zones!

Well, by that measure, I suppose I am pretty well adapted.  I have finally, after 16 years in my adopted country, found some local underwear that I like.  I recently discovered, however, that I have not yet arrived at FULL cultural adaptation, when all the not-so-young women in my Bible Study confessed that they wear…thongs.  Gasp.  Oh my goodness!  I am not there yet.  And frankly, I find it hard to imagine myself taking that leap!

I imagine you are laughing, because we all know that the color or size or fabric of my underwear is not a crucial cultural adaptation.  But in other areas it is harder to know what is crucial.

When is enough enough?  When can I just stop adapting to this culture?   Even after living in Colombia for many years, I find myself asking these questions from time to time.  I have changed in many ways, and I do feel comfortable here.  But when the infrequent cultural conflicts do occur, it is getting increasingly difficult to keep changing, because the friction takes place at an increasingly deeper level of my personality.

One day I began to wonder if I could go directly to Jesus and learn anything about cultural adaptation from His life on earth.  Did He adapt to the culture of the day, or didn’t He?  What can I learn from Him about this issue?

Now Jesus, as a man, lived almost His entire life within one country and culture.  So we cannot really watch Him move from one human culture to another.  But I think if we look at the deeper issues in cultural adaptation, He can teach us some things.

Jesus came to earth from heaven, so in a sense, He came from outside any human culture.  But I think it is important not to overlook how well He fit in to one very specific culture on earth.  He dressed like they dressed, ate what they ate, and spoke their language.  He participated in their traditions, and received standard schooling.  He correctly perceived their values—He knew the Jews loved the law and Moses, He could see through the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, and He understood their tension with Rome.

No one ever suspected that He came from someplace else.  In fact, most had trouble believing that He was the Son of God, saying, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?  How can He now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”  (John 6:42)

The key to understanding the significance of His adaptation to a human culture is understanding His reason for doing so.  It was not just the haphazard result of being born into a Jewish home and growing up there.  It was intentional.  His attitude is described in Philippians 2:6-7:  Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

He became human to reveal God to us and to provide a way back into relationship with God.  He changed His location and His nature in order to serve us.  To love us.  I imagine it was often a painful and uncomfortable experience, to become like us and to live among us and communicate truth to us in a way that we could grasp.

When He spoke to the people of Israel, He spoke their language.  He used objects from their daily lives to illustrate truths.  He told parables, which I understand they still do in the Middle East today.  He began to teach them from their context—the Old Testament and what God had revealed to them as His chosen people—and built on that to help them understand God’s message to humankind.

After observing these aspects in the gospels, I was truly amazed at the lengths that God went to, through Jesus, to move toward us.  He went a great distance to meet us where we are in terms of location, appearance, language, and His communication style.  The whole point of the gospel is that God did not just stay where He was and wait for us to try to find a way to Him.

This is the example I am called to follow.  Philippians 2:5 says, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.”

I drew two conclusions from looking at Jesus’ example.  First, Jesus let go of who He was at the side of God, and He came to earth.  In the same way, I need to GO to people.  Whether in my own neighborhood or in a foreign country, I need to be among them.  I need to do what they do, celebrate with them, get out of my house and just rub shoulders with them in daily life.  Jesus moved toward people, and I need to do the same.

Second, if I am going to be able to effectively communicate God’s message to the people around me, I need to speak their language.  Language learning must be a priority for those of us who live in a country where we need to speak a second language.  Jesus did not use a translator.  Jesus WAS the translator for God’s message.  This is a killer.  I know it is hard.  Learning a second language makes you feel so dumb sometimes.  But I just do not see anyway around it.  Although love is indeed a far more important factor than language in communicating the good news, loving people should compel me to acquire better language skills.

But we know that communication is much more than just language.  It is gestures and ways of greeting and knowing what can be said, and what should not.  This is where we need to become students of our adopted culture.  Right off the bat we need to learn the social customs.  We need to know how to correctly behave in society, so that we can indeed express concern and interest in those around us as a first step to building a bridge that will later carry the weight of the gospel.

Now, this is hard for me to take seriously, even after 16 years.  I grew up in an informal state in an informal country, and I now find myself in an elegantly formal society.  In Colombia, when you enter a room full of people you really must individually greet each person with a handshake and a “How do you do?”  If you miss someone, that person will automatically assume that you are upset with him, or do not like him.  To me, this assumption seems quite silly, and it is hard for me to keep from being lazy about getting around to everyone.  But imagine the doors that I could be slamming shut to the gospel by being remiss in my greetings!

There is also a deeper and more difficult level of culture to understand.  It can take us a lifetime to understand the values, beliefs, history, and tradition of a people group, but how greatly God can use us when we begin to learn!  We can be like Jesus and begin to share spiritual truths with our friends starting from their context, beginning with their felt needs.  The best way to do this is to ask many questions and become an excellent listener.  This is an area in which I really need to grow.  With more than a decade under my belt, I can be fooled into thinking I understand when I am really just seeing the tip of the iceberg.  I do need to keep listening and absorbing.

So, I saw from Jesus’ example that, out of love for the people to whom I am privileged to carry His message, I still have work to do on adapting to and understanding their culture.  Does that mean I just have to keep going and going until I am indistinguishable from a Colombian?

Not so fast!  Jesus was not always culturally sensitive.  In fact, sometimes He flew right into the face of the values His countrymen held most dear.  He healed on the Sabbath, which was not at all culturally acceptable.  You were not supposed to work at all on the Sabbath!  He did not wash His hands properly when He was invited to dinner at a Pharisee’s house.  He talked to women, and He touched lepers.  He even showed compassion to prostitutes, and in general associated with many ‘undesirable’ people.  Instead of deferring to the religious leaders, He insulted them and criticized them.

It appears to me that many of these cultural faux pas were shrewdly calculated to shake up someone’s world.  Jesus violated cultural norms on purpose.  Not out of contrariness, or laziness, or pure disregard for what was important to people around Him, but rather to make people think.  He wanted them to really ponder the King and the Kingdom, and His true identity.

I am not smart enough to ever go against the culture on purpose just to make people think, but I wonder if it might happen by ‘accident’?  As we continue to walk with God, we will increasingly adopt the culture of the Kingdom of God.  As that happens, we will look less and less like someone from our native culture, AND less like someone from our adopted culture, BUT more and more like a citizen of the Kingdom.  THAT could shake up a few people—in both cultures!

Jesus, out of love, blended in with the Jewish culture of His time.  He did everything He had to do to make the message understandable to those around Him.  That did not mean that He completely took on all the values of that culture, because His were Kingdom values through and through.  I think that is what I need to do: Love those around me so much that I will adapt to them in anyway I need to in order to pose no obstacle to God’s message, while at the same time walking with God and bathing my mind with His Word so that I will be transformed into His likeness, expressing Kingdom culture.

So when is enough enough?  When can I stop adapting to this culture?  Are basic language skills enough, or should I keep making an effort until I feel comfortable reading literature in this foreign language?   I now understand that people will arrive late, but am I not culturally adapted if I still dislike it that they arrive late?  And is it enough to fit in with local clothing styles by wearing dressy shoes, or do I have to get used to the idea of wearing that thong underwear?

I guess I still do not have an exact answer for myself to those questions.  But meditating on Jesus and culture has given me two questions to ask myself to help me figure out when enough is enough.  Number one, is the way I am dressing/talking/relating creating a barrier to the message I am carrying?  And, number two, if it is, am I willing to die to self and change despite my own discomfort or stubbornness?

I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that God’s response to my whine of, “How much do I have to change?” is always going to be, “A bit more.”  Because the example set by the One up ahead, Who is setting the pace for us, is described in Philippians 2:8:  And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross! 

Jesus loved us so much and obeyed God so fully that He went to the cross!  He has told us that our path is taking up the cross and following Him.  Although I may not like the answer, I think I still have a good distance to go in dying to self in order to love those around me—in my particular case, by adapting to their culture.

©2012 Thrive.

This article by Laura T.  de Gomez was originally published in the Women of the Harvest onlineMagazine,  March/April 2007.