Lenses for the World

For three weeks Carrie and I have been in North Carolina attending a course on living cross-culturally at CIT (Center for Intercultural Training). One of the most significant teachings that I hope I never forget has been the concept that each culture sees the world around them through three lenses with varying degrees of clarity. These lenses are Shame, Guilt, and Fear.

For example, the clearest lens for American culture is the Guilt lens. Sure we see through the Shame and Fear lenses as well, but just not as clearly as the Guilt lens. With this lens as clearest, we tend to see the world as right or wrong, moral or immoral, black or white. Because of this lens, our internal guilt controls us and keeps us in line with society.

As a comparison, much of the Middle East and Asia sees the world primarily through the Shame lens. With this lens they divide the world around them between shame and honor, disgrace and dignity, embarrassment and pride. Because of this lens, the Shame-based culture is kept in line as a society by the desire to “save face” and avoid situations and actions that would cause shame.

Lastly, much of Africa and Central/South America see the world through the lens of Fear. With this lens the world is a lot murkier since the object of fear is usually the spirit world. Much of their lives revolve around doing everything they’re told to appease the unseen and maintain harmony in the world around them. As the result of this lens, societies are kept in line by the desire to not upset the unseen world around them.

I’ve summarized about 4 hours of teaching in the last four paragraphs and I haven’t even touched on the political or religious ramifications. It must be said that every culture sees through each lens to varying degrees. For example, Shame exists in our American culture when certain sins (from our Guilt lens) transition over to the Shame lens. This is seen when groups like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) try to sharpen the focus of the Shame lens on the Guilt of drunk driving.

Furthermore, each culture interprets its lens differently. In the Middle Eastern culture, the response to extreme shame is often revenge where in Japan the response to shame can be as strong as suicide. So we see that these three lenses don’t explain everything there is to know about different cultures, but it does give us a framework to work with as we approach the thought of moving cross-culturally.

How does all this affect the world of the missionary and more specifically us migrating to the German/European culture? Honestly, I’m not sure. From my very limited perspective, Europe and Germany still view the world primarily through the Guilt lens. Parts, however, are shifting to the Fear lens because some in Europe are embracing the old, pre-Christian gods of their pagan ancestors. Other parts are shifting to the Shame lens as Europe becomes increasingly more Muslim. These are interesting times for Europe and all the more reason to be a witness for Jesus in the midst of all these changes!

How does the Bible respond to these three lenses? From my American/Guilt lens, of course my first thought was to think that the Guilt lens was the most biblical. However, let’s go back to the beginning of our fallen state and see what happened.

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked [GUILT]. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths [SHAME]. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden [FEAR]. (Genesis 3:6-8, ESV)

So we see in this foundational passage that all three were at work. I won’t bore you with a long list of scriptures, but do a search for Shame and you’ll find the word used more than 160 times. Fear is used more than 400 times, and Guilt is used about 160 times (searching the ESV with www.BibleGateway.com). These themes are interwoven throughout scripture. Jesus died to forgive us of our Guilt, to replace our Shame with His honor, and to give us His power over all we might Fear.

The Good News is for all cultures, it is our task to approach them with the Gospel as it is seen through their lens first so that the Gospel has maximum effectiveness. What an exciting new perspective to help us reach people: Study and learn the culture to understand through which lens they see the world and then show them how the Gospel helps them at their most basic need.

How simple yet profound!

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